SXSW: Ian Somerhalder and Katie Couric’s Tech Correspondent Pick the Best of Interactive

 

The just-concluded SXSW Interactive (SXSWi) festival in Austin, Tex., drew an estimated record 27,000 attendees this year, up about 10 percent from last year. So which tech products, apps, speakers and parties wowed the crowds? THR talked to a select number of participants, including actor Ian Somerhalder and Katie talk show tech reporter Brit Morin, about what has the digital world buzzing.

Says Somerhalder: “It was the most important place to be in the world for idea sharing and seeing people who are literally developing technology that’s changing the world and really allowing us to move information quickly and bring us together." The actor was in town to promote both his CW Network show Vampire Diaries and a new online news site, RYOT.org, that lets readers take a charitable action after reading a story they connect with. “You are meeting the people who founded and invested in Twitter, Facebook, Google. It’s really inspiring to see what they are doing. I’m still kind of high from the experience."

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The Hot Hardware: Tech products, not apps, were the talk of the festival this year (unlike in 2012 when the breakout was social discovery mobile app Highlight.) The opening keynote by Makerbot’s Bre Pettis on Friday, March 8, set the tone. The co-founder of the consumer-oriented 3D printer company unveiled a much-talked-about prototype 3D scanner, the Digitizer Desktop. It promises to let people scan and create digital files of everyday objects at home and print out duplicates (in biodegradable plastic).

“The focus this year was definitely on hardware, namely, Google Glass, the search giant's augmented reality glasses that are rumored to be making their consumer debut this year,” says Erin Magner, senior editor at business-to-business research and advisory service Stylus. “There was a lot of discussion of wearable technology. It’s amazing to think that in the not-so-distant future, we'll be able to get directions, find restaurant reviews and check our e-mail all without having to fumble with our phones. I also got to test out the new Leap Motion gestural video gaming apparatus, which goes on sale this May and is the most precise of its kind -- you can control the action on-screen by moving just a finger, rather than using your whole body as you would with other gestural devices like Kinect. This technology shows that we'll increasingly be using our bodies to manipulate technology, rather than screens or remote controls.”

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The Hot Apps and Websites: Tinder, the IAC-backed new iOS mobile dating app, wasn’t unveiled at SXSWi but attendees are still marveling at how quickly the user base of the months-old service has snowballed.

"It was the most talked about app in my circles. They have created an extremely simple user experience based around something that men and women of all ages could find entertaining,” says Katie correspondent Morin, the founder of lifestyle and e-commerce site Brit + Co. Tinder matches users via Facebook data.

Panels included a look at Facebook’s new Graph Search search function and one featuring Somerhalder and actress Sophia Bush discussing RYOT.org. Explains Somerhalder: “When you read a piece of news on the site -- and I don’t mean information about the celebrity world but news of global import -- you can scroll down and there’s a donate box to an appropriate charity.” The site, which is in beta, has such partners as the actor’s Ian Somerhalder Foundation, DirectRelief International, Oceana and Water.org.

For a low-tech change of pace, Warner Bros. Television created a cleverly tongue-in-cheek off-site lounge in Austin that imagined what form popular web platforms would take in Revolution’s post-apocalyptic world. Visitors pinned photos on a corkboard “Pinterest” board, wrote status updates on a “Facebook” chalkboard and exchanged trinkets at a “Craiglist” swap table. “Most of it was asking a real question: What happens when the lights go out? What happens when we can’t charge our phones? It’s our dependency on and insatiable thirst for energy that’s what’s screwing us environmentally,” says Somerhalder.

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The Stars of the Festival: Grumpy Cat trumped human celebrities this year. “Celebs don’t matter as much as they did even last year, or perhaps the clutter has just gotten too overwhelming,” one digital strategist for an entertainment company tells THR. “The lines around the block on Saturday weren’t for Olivia Wilde [talking about marketing films online] or Andy Cohen [in town filming Watch What Happens Live].” Instead, they were at the Mashable House to see biggest feline meme star ever: Grumpy Cat. Magner was among them: “People were lining up for hours to get their pictures taken with her in front of a Mashable logo board, myself included. I think this kind of inherently sharable marketing is far more effective than slapping a brand's name on a cocktail party, and will certainly be the way forward for events like this,” she says

The Speaker of the Weekend: The New York Times’ critical review of his Tesla Model S’s battery capabilities certainly didn’t damper enthusiasm for entrepreneur Elon Musk’s March 9 keynote address. If anything, it made it more highly anticipated. A huge line snaked through the Austin Convention Center of attendees hoping to get a seat for his discussion, with many turned away. The co-founder of Tesla and space exploration company SpaceX and the chairman of solar power company SolarCity didn’t disappoint, electrifying Exhibition Hall 5 with a video showing a recent rocket test launch that promises to significantly reduce the cost of space exploration. The technological innovation is a reusable rocket. In the test, an approximately 10-story rocket was shown blasting off to a height of 263 feet, then returning to a pad after 34 seconds with a controlled landing. “He’s one of the great entrepreneurs of the world. The depth of his success is incredible,” says Bobby Maylack, chief operating officer of Prizeo, a website preparing a global roll-out that partners charities and brands via one-a-kind-raffles. Somerhalder caught up with Musk at 3 a.m. one night and chatted with him “about how his new jet propulsion is going to change space exploration.” The two hung out at one of Austin’s many speakeasy-like bars. “There are all these great places that you can go to and sit in corners and sip bourbon,” says the actor of the city’s nightlife scene.

The Top Party: Hands down, it was the bash thrown by Path, Spotify and investment fund A-Grade (founded by Guy Oseary, Ashton Kutcher and Ron Burkle) at the W Hotel on Sunday, March 10. Jane’s Addiction played and the guests included Bush, Uber’s Ryan Graves, Mark Cuban and Chuck Lorre. Morin was there with husband Dave Morin, the co-founder and CEO of social networking mobile service Path. “What started as a vision to include only 150 people easily topped 1,000 and was probably the hardest to get into. Celebs ranged from Kutcher to Adrian Grenier to Coolio. Yes, Coolio.”

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The Wheels War: With so many thousands invading the city, getting around Austin is a tough proposition, one that plenty of companies capitalized on to promote themselves. Bing was offering free rides in SUVs to guests who hung out in their lounge and completed an online survey, while Chevy ran its “Catch-A-Chevy” program which had about 50 cars available to drive badge holders around the city for free. “One driver told us that people were literally fighting over the cars and that they received a ton of Twitter activity from people tweeting to Chevy asking for a ride," says Magner.

Car-hire app Uber was offering free rides too, as was ride-sharing app SideCar. Also seen everywhere were the blue-branded Smart Cars that make up car2go’s 300-vehicle fleet. The cars are reserved via car2go’s app, drivers swipe a card and enter a pin to get behind the wheel, and take off. When they’re done, they park (parking is free and paid for by the Daimler-owned company) and the vehicle is available for another user to grab it. A Daimler exec also showed this reporter an app, not yet available in the United States, called Moovel, currently in use in Berlin and Stuttgart, Germany. The mobile platform helps users get from a start point to an end point by integrating information from car2go, the car-sharing network carpooling.com and public transportation, allowing payment through the app as well.

Pedicabs clogged streets as well. The competition is perhaps only to be expected given that the highly successful Uber, now available in more than 24 cities, ran its earliest test runs in Austin in 2010. Says Maylack: “It’s fascinating that SXSW has become this place where things like that can take off.”

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