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SXSW 2017: Trends and talking points

SXSW kicked off in Austin, Texas on Friday, March 10. There are some noticeable changes to the badge system where everyone, whether you have a Film, Interactive, or Music badge, can enter a panel or event no matter what track the panel or event is. What is means is a music badge can enter an interactive talk about AI. It’s SXSW way of saying all the industries attending the festival and conference aren’t as siloed as they once were. It’s true all these industries intermingle with Pandora being both a technology company and music company, or Netflix being entrenched in both the technology and film communities. While the change is small, it brings further understanding to these “tech” companies are more than that. Facebook is not just a platform but a media company, same idea with Twitter. SXSW is forcing everyone to understand these ideas, whether or not they like it.

What I’m getting at is the trends for this year is across all the panels and events. It’s important to note not every trend crosses into music, film, and interactive. The discussion of self-driving cars isn’t going to have debates in the music or film panels, but we might find AI talks across all the events. This year’s SXSW trends include:

Virtual Reality

No matter where you walk at South by, you’ll see someone talking about or demoing a VR headset. The Dell Lounge, Capital Factory Mega Lounge, and a handful of other lounges all feature VR headsets for anyone to enjoy. Beyond the lounges, everyone around the conference is talking about their experiences. They’re discussing whether they’d want to buy one or go to a VR arcade, or if VR will ever hit the mainstream market. The panels on VR are discussing how VR and AR technologies will be employed in medicine from treating depression to helping students study the human body.

VR is still in the early days with everyone trying to understand the technology. It’s exciting watching everyone talk about VR, whether or not the technology fails or succeeds.

Artificial Intelligence

Artificial intelligence is everywhere! Soylent has AI-powered spokeswomen, and every single app around is adding AI to their recommendations. There are hundreds of panels of AI, with most of them taking a positive outlook on the trend. There are worries about privacy, the singularity, and even if every AI is truly an AI. Discussion around AI started when Amazon Alexa took off but continued with AI being added to Pandora, Evernote, and with the Google Assitant making a big splash.

I doubt anything will come out of all the talks around AI because it’s another early trend we still don’t fully grasp. While we appreciate the worries around privacy, the singularity, and the fake marketing gimmick of adding AI to an app, we’re far from building an AI that we’ve seen in movies like Her.


Startups are everywhere! I’ve run into countless startup founders vying for attention before they pitch at the official startup competition. Then the Startup Crawl is an official SXSW event, with 90 startups and over 12,000 registrants already! We’ve always seen startups try to break out during the week-long event, but it’s more prevalent than previous years.  I doubt we’ll see another Meerkat, Twitter, or Foursquare, but everyone is trying to become the most talked about startup.

This year’s event is the largest ever, with more badges issued than ever before. The cross-mingling of interactive, music, and film allows the startups to reach wider an audience than they could in the past.

International Participation

Trump has issued another executive order banning travel from seven majority Muslim nations. Everyone, I mean everyone, is talking about the executive order. They’re also worried how the negative comments from Trump have affected international conferences like SXSW. The conference has officially stated they’re seeing the most international participation compared to previous years. Booths from Brazil, Japan, and other nations have set up in prime spots to highlight their country’s success with startups.

It’s still early in the conference and festival; we’ll keep an eye out for stories around international participation.


Wearables are a big talking point. Spectacles are everywhere, health is a big part of Austin, and wearable companies are failing. The general thought around wearables is they don’t serve enough function to fit into someone’s daily life. Fitbit offers step tracking, but that’s not enough for many. Customers want to know what those steps mean. They want to see how their health is affected by eating a donut or running a mile. The fitness trackers don’t do that. They offer up data and nothing more.

Everyone is trying to see if wearables are worth the investment. They’re also looking for a way to make wearables more functional.

Tl; DR

AI, wearables, VR, international participation, and startups are all broad trends during SXSW. At the most basic level, these are also the trends at events these days. What’s different about SXSW is how conference goers are mixing business and play when they’re in Austin. What comes out of the event will feature brands and maybe an app or two. Otherwise, SXSX is another industry event where insider comes together to talk and party. Social media has made the event more of a social media experience.

Tell us in the comments below what you think about the trends at SXSW. Are you at South by? Drop us a line so we could grab lunch or a drink!