The best of SXSW Interactive, from big-screen releases to the big TV shows of 2016

The big movers and shakers of tech and media are in Texas this week to show their wares. Here’s the best of what this year’s event had to offer

 

Here comes the future. In the coming months and years, the stuff seen, heard and experienced at this year’s South by Southwest festival (SXSW) in Austin, Texas, will be coming to a screen, handset or workplace near you. Sure, some of the stuff will take a little longer to arrive, but you can be sure it’s on the way in one form or another.

At SXSW, everyone is betting on what comes next. The event has a fairly decent track record in this regard. For example, it’s where Twitter, the social media network so beloved of influencers and media folk, found its feet in 2007. Because of this and other tech ideas which first surfaced at the event, thousands of those involved in technology, media and all points in-between head to Texas every March to engage in boosterism, tyre-kicking and eating tacos.

But if SXSW, which is marking its 30th year in business this year, was solely about tech, it wouldn’t enjoy as much traction or attention as it does. Over the past decade, SXSW has become a monster event which now features strands dedicated to sports, food, fashion, government, film, TV, social ventures, makers, transport, urban living, education, health, marketing and dozens of other bits and pieces.

That’s before you add in SXSW Music which is currently in full swing with 2,000 bands in town.

It’s this mix which is SXSW’s secret sauce. There are plenty of other events around the world which cater for one or other of these interest areas, but SXSW is alone in bringing all these to the table. There are times when it becomes unwieldy – and the crowds make getting around a Herculean task – but it’s still the premier place where ideas and technologies are discussed, debated and disseminated.

This year, it was ideas and issues more than the launch of apps and tech which held sway. Sure, there was some tech in the mix such as Google’s self-driving cars and more virtual reality headsets than you can shake an augmented-reality stick at.

But the real juice came with things such as US President Barack Obama’s keynote conversation with journalist Evan Smith or the huge response for speakers such as chef Anthony Bourdain and writer Kevin Kelly.

Here’s some of what has caught our attention at SXSW this week.

Buzzword bingo
Are you an early nosher? If you’re someone who considers yourself a foodie and is keen to try out new restaurants and food trends before anyone else in your social network, you probably are. The early nosher term popped up in a discussion on food trends – Brussels sprouts are out, edible insects are in – and was one of many incongruous new words heard over the week.

To counteract all that, there was also a panel about how to stop speaking in bullshit. Panelist Nell Scovell demonstrated how hard this is to do by reading pages at random from the SXSW programme, all clogged with disruption, curation, cultural appropriation and other examples of new-school BS.

The big screen
SXSW’s film festival is one of the real joys of the Austin programme, with a huge number of films showing on a dozen screens across town. Big hitters included Jean-Marc Vallé’s Demolition, featuring Jake Gyllenhaal as a banker whose life falls apart after his wife dies in a car crash, and Jeff Nichols’ sci-fi thriller Midnight Special, both coming soon to Irish screens.

John Michael McDonagh’s War On Everyone sees him leaving Ireland for a cop-buddy film set in New Mexico, with Michael Peña and Alexander Skarsgård filling the screen instead of Brendan Gleeson. It’s certainly not The Guard.

Some other flicks may take their time in finding their way into your local cinema but will be worth the wait. These include Austin director Greg Kwedar’s assured debut Transpecos, about three US border guards, and Hunter-Gatherer, Josh Locy’s sweet tale about ex-con Ashley Douglas (brilliantly played by Andre Royo) returning to his old neighbourhood.

The small screen
SXSW is where the big TV networks increasingly come to premiere new shows or promote returning favourites.

The biggest noise this week was around the adaptation of Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Preacher comic book for TV by Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg and Sam Catlin.

There’s a strong performance from Dominic Cooper as the preacher in a small Texas town dealing with matters of life, death and demons, but the real show-stealer is Ruth Negga as his kick-ass ex Tulip O’Hare. However, the less said about Joe Gilgun’s atrocious begorrah accent in his role as Irish vampire Cassidy the better.

Other shows getting attention in Austin included millennial comedy Search Party, another comic book adaptation Outcast, threesome comedy drama You Me Her and Baz Luhrmann’s series on 1970s New York hip-hop The Get Down, which writer Nelson George spoke about at length in his keynote. The best promo by far had to be the recreation of the Fun Society amusement arcade to plug the new season of Mr Robot.

Emoji
Ben Medlock, co-founder of SwiftKey.com, and linguist Gretchen McCulloch are the people with all the answers when it comes to analysing the linguistic secrets of millions of emoji sent every day of the week.

Their presentation produced such interesting finds as: 70 per cent of all emoji use is the positive smiling face; emoji has become a widespread informal written language that was hitherto absent; and there’s a huge difference in the emoji used from country to country.

No tips
One of the most fascinating panels on the SouthBites food strand was New York restaurateur Danny Meyer talking about how he has eliminated tipping at his establishments.

He talked about how tipping had its roots in post-slavery racial discrimination as a way for bosses to avoid paying employees. Meyer said he had to convince staff, customers and investors that this policy would work and that increased prices to make sure staff got paid properly would not have an adverse effect on the bottom line.

So far, it’s going well and Meyer says he now has more staff wanting to work for him.

Cars
There was a lot of talk at SXSW about driverless vehicles. Aside from Google’s Chris Urmson talking about what’s going on with that company’s self-driving car project (including what happened recently when a Google car hit a bus), there were also some fascinating panels and sessions about the challenges and advantages which driverless cars will bring for citizens and cities in the future.

The days of being stuck driving for an hour on the M50 in a traffic snarl-up may be coming to a close.

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