AUSTIN, TEXAS —
They say everything is bigger in Texas and the annual South by Southwest festival in Austin doesn’t seem to be an exception for the Lone Star state.
Since its start, South by Southwest, or SXSW, became a magnet for musicians and artists to showcase their work. But since 1994, a new portion of the festival has taken center stage: South by Southwest Interactive. This section of the event now attracts more people than the music and film divisions.
So what is it about? The organizers call it an “incubator of cutting-edge technologies and digital creativity.” During the five-day event, which started Friday, attendees participate in panels about online privacy, presentations on the advent of robots in daily life or how to properly run your startup.
FILE - Visitors explore a robot equipped with facial recognition software at the South by Southwest (SXSW) interactive, film and music conference in Austin, March 17, 2015.
The festival also has multiple awards ceremonies to honor the best apps, websites, video games and tech creations. The gathering has more of an informal atmosphere than other tech events, such as the Mobile World Congress in Spain and CES in Las Vegas.
Big names, like Star Wars director J.J. Abrams, also come to Austin to participate as keynote speakers during SXSW Interactive.
This year, President Barack Obama made history becoming the first sitting president to speak during South by Southwest. Obama pushed for innovation encouraging attendees to “tackle big problems in new ways.”
WATCH: Obama addresses South by Southwest Festival
The year of VR
Virtual reality, or VR, is also expected to be one of the protagonists of the gathering this year. Companies like Samsung have made available VR devices like the Samsung Gear VR.
Later this year, Playstation, Oculus and HTC will also unveil virtual reality devices. Music and media companies will offer attendees the chance to experience their latest products in the VR realm. Sports teams also have been exploring using VR technology to enhance fans’ experience while attending sporting events.
Tech companies look for their moment
You might have heard of Twitter. Well, its big moment happened during South by Southwest Interactive in 2007. The social media network now has more than 320 million users worldwide. That is an impetus a lot of tech startups attending SXSW from different corners of the world want to replicate.
“We can basically show our product to a much bigger audience than we could in Germany,” said Daniel Buttner, founder and CEO of Basslet, a bracelet that allows you to feel the bass of music through your body. Lofelt, the company responsible for the Basslet, is based in Berlin.
Entrepreneurs get together at this tech-themed gathering in the pursuit of putting their product on the map. But they don’t only want brand recognition and generate buzz, they are also looking for funding and many entrepreneurs say SXSW is a perfect occasion for it.
Buttner told VOA Basslet is “also looking at Silicon Valley investors and making connections there.”
Learning from others
Downtown Austin becomes a global gathering. In a matter of minutes you can hear Spanish, Italian, English, German or Japanese, just to name a few languages.
Cast and crew members arrive at the premiere of "Everybody Wants Some" at the Paramount Theatre during South By Southwest, March 11, 2016, in Austin, Texas.
Tech companies from all around the world gather at SXSW Interactive not only to show their product but also look to learn from their peers.
“It is a great networking opportunity. We learn a lot from other startups, from other venture folks that are here, from people with real deep experience in the sector,” said Eli Lee, co-founder of MyChange, an app developed in New Mexico. MyChange rounds up daily credit and debit card transactions from users and then donates the change to a charity or political candidate of their choice.
Lots of noise, no results?
Organizers say the Interactive part of SXSW attracted more than 30,000 people from 80 different countries in 2015. Many here argue that this surge in popularity in recent years, due to the so called Mark Zuckerberg effect when young people around the world want to become a billionaire with the next tech idea, has resulted in a lot of action with not many concise results. Many ideas, devices and apps come here and don’t take off at all.
SXSW also faced criticism a few months ago when organizers decided to cancel panels about harassment in online video games. The festival mended the situation organizing a day-long “online harassment summit” that will take place Saturday.
Amid the controversies and the accusations of lots of buzz but no results, many tech entrepreneurs told VOA having all these people in one place is invaluable.
“South by Southwest is sort of a good melting pot where a lot of people come together and it’s not only the [tech] industry but it is also artists and musicians,” said Buttner.
The startup representatives also have realistic expectations about the impact of SXSW Interactive. Many of them dismiss the idea that the festival is a crucial moment in the long-term existence of their creation.
“[In] the life of a startup there’s a make or break everyday,” said Lee.