The art of being present at SXSW

Jack Blog

March 18th, 2016 By Jack Morton

Since returning from my SXSW 2016 experience, I’ve been thinking about what the stand-out moments were for me. I saw some great panels and sessions, found brand experiences that went to new heights and took in all the weird Austin had to offer. I could tell you about Driverless cars. Or the future of AI. I could tell you how I geeked out on seeing a few speakers do their thing live. There are quite a few highlights that I felt pretty lucky to have gotten to see firsthand. But anyone who’s been to SXSW also knows the FOMO you have when you can’t ‘see it all’ or be in five places at once. I’m still pretty bummed I couldn’t get into Obama’s keynote.
I’m not going to tell you about any of that since a simple Google search will give you all the highlights you could want and more. Instead, I’d like to focus on something I observed consistently during my SXSW experience – whether I was in a panel or walking down the busy streets of downtown:
Looks familiar, right? Too familiar. Most attendees spend the majority of their time snapping photos, tweeting, and monitoring their social channels via laptop, phone, tablet, or even multiple devices simultaneously. A few days into the festival, I started to pay more attention to my own behavior. How much time was I spending answering texts and emails? Posting to social media or trying to take notes? Turns out I’m just as bad as the rest. My insta-addiction was likely getting the better of me.
I decided in my final two days, I’d do an experiment. I left my laptop in my room and put my phone on silent. And for the first time, I felt fully present. Along with my newfound focus, came clarity. I was now both an active listener AND a participant.
As I became more aware of the full SXSW experience, I noticed something that may be contributing to the ‘heads down, focus on gadgetry’ lifestyle. Many of the panels had done away with live Q&A where attendees lined up during the last 10 minutes to ask questions. Instead, a slide with a hashtag prompted the audience to post questions to twitter. This completely changes the dynamic from stepping up to the mic and asking the presenter pretty much anything you wanted. Instead, a moderator filters through questions and a select few are put up on slides at the end to be answered. During the Wikipedia session, Jimmy Wales actually cautioned Guy Kawasaki when he attempted to take questions from the audience and pointed him toward the question that was already up on the slide “They warned us backstage… Don’t yell out questions from the audience. It’ll be chaos… They’re like wild animals…”
This new Q&A format seemed to be a pivot toward what attendees were already doing: Posting on social channels. The VR Accelerator session went a step further, prompting the audience to enter questions via hashtag on Slido. The conference required us to interact virtually in order to be part of it in-person. Oh, the irony. I’m sure it makes the sessions flow better. It definitely adds a layer of control. And then it happened. The moment where my mind was blown and I saw where all of this is headed.
One of the finalists in the Accelerator, Vantage TV, presented a VR product that actually transports the user to a live event. Not just as a viewer, but through the eyes of an attendee using VR. This isn’t your run-of-the-mill, live streaming video event. This is multi-camera, 360 degree live video broadcast  that gives you a first person POV. And with partners like Coachella, Lollapalooza and Nascar – they’re charging a ticket price for virtual admission. That is a game changer.
Let’s go back to the idea of ‘being present’. Yes, technology can be a huge distraction. It’s also an enabler. The live Q&A may have been a more personal and spontaneous approach, but crowdsourcing the questions online does allow presenters to view the full breadth of questions and gain deeper insight into their audience.
So here I am, phone in hand, paired with a Google Cardboard and exploring the live events I may want to attend. Present in a whole new way. Only this time without the dangers of walking and texting. I had been avoiding looking down at my phone in order to feel present at SXSW. But to be truly present, I needed to hold it up and look through it.