South by Southwest Interactive, once the nerdy kid brother of the SXSW music festival, has grown up to be Charles Atlas-strong. Since 2007 — the year Twitter broke — attendance at the Austin interactive fest has grown nearly fivefold to more than 30,000. Old-timers will grouse that SXSWi has morphed from a place for tech startups to share knowledge and innovations to an overly commercial clusterfuck. But the 2014 edition, which wrapped up earlier this week, was still capable of eliciting surprise and delight — in addition to the occasional feeling of deep embarrassment.
Here are five things we learned in Austin:
1. Privacy Is on Everyone's Mind
The two biggest names in the fight against government surveillance — NSA leaker Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange — remotely addressed the conference in separate, high-profile events. Snowden, appearing from somewhere in Russia with a backdrop of the U.S. Constitution, said he had no regrets about leaking NSA documents. In terms of U.S. surveillance of its own citizens, he said, "South by Southwest and the tech community — the people in the room in Austin — they're the folks who can fix this." Assange, meanwhile, praised Snowden and called out Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg as self-serving for Zuck's recent statement that we live in a "post-privacy world."
2. "Smart" Motorcycle Helmet Wins Wearable Tech
Right now, wearable tech — from smartwatches to Google Glass to fitness bands that monitor your vitals — is all the rage. The most buzzed-about wearable device at SXSWi was an augmented-reality motorcycle helmet created by Silicon Valley startup Skully Helmets. The fancy brain bucket, which won Skully first place in the fest's wearable-tech competition, features a 180-degree rearview camera whose images are projected onto the lower right side of the helmet's visor, allowing wearers to keep their eyes on the road. Plus, it's got built-in GPS and voice control. Seems like a worthwhile trade-off for the feel of the wind in your hair.
3. There Was No "Next Twitter"
Twitter, the startup that took SXSWi by storm in 2007, remains the conference's biggest breakout hit. But there was no heir to the Twitter throne in evidence at this year's SXSW. "I think that social media has become so baked into everything we do that the revolution has plateaued a little bit," SXSWi director Hugh Forrest told CNN. "Twitter was our big moment. But I also think, at this point, it's our biggest albatross. [People always ask] ‘Why isn't there a Twitter this year?'" Alas, #maybenextyear?
4. Oculus Rift, the Virtual Reality 3D Headset, Is Awesome
SXSWi attendees had a chance to don the Oculus Rift, the much-hyped virtual reality headset that represents the next big leap in gaming tech. Those willing to brave a long line at the festival's Game of Thrones exhibit were fitted with the Oculus Rift and headphones and treated to a pulse-poundingly immersive ride in the show's Castle Black winch elevator. The experience got high marks from at least one Thrones cast member, Kristian Nairn (Hodor), who tweeted: "I was excited to try the @oculus rift ... Wasn't ready for the awesome."
5. Tech and Music Can Make for a Cringe-Inducing Mix
Ben Horowitz, a hip-hop-loving venture capitalist busy promoting his new book The Hard Thing About Hard Things, played hypeman for his pal Nas at a party thrown by Ashton Kutcher's VC fund. As this Instagram video shows, Horowitz came across as stiff and awkward (though Kutcher, also onstage, availed himself pretty well):
Meanwhile, AOL's outlandish Digital Prophet (yes, that's his real title) David Shing, a mix between Skrillex and a troll doll, put his own spin on Miley Cyrus' "Wrecking Ball" video at a Mashable party. This Vine captures the stunt in all its shamelessness: