The best of SXSW Interactive Festival: top tech trends and news stories

Saqib Shah
March 11, 2014

For anyone out there who thinks that South By Southwest (SXSW) is merely a star-studded music festival, think again. As this year’s event once again showcases, SXSW has grown in to a much larger entity in which tech brands, corporations, lawmakers and startups interact with audio-visual artists in groundbreaking ways.

This year alone will see the continuation of the SXSW film festival, the aforementioned music festival and (what gets our juices flowing) the Interactive tech segment of the festival – which has just ended.

So what were the big tech events at this year’s SXSW? Read on to find out more about the major talking points from the festival:

Wearables, above and beyond


Google’s Sundar Pichai used the event to talk about his employer’s plans to release a software development kit (SDK) based on Android for makers of wearable devices, such as smartwatches,  in two weeks.

Google’s SDK is intended for other developers to power their own wearable devices. As with its mobile strategy, the spread of Android is Google’s primary concern here – with the wearable SDK allowing the services it offers packaged with Android to reach even further, via other manufacturers’ hardware.

It’s not just smartwatches Google has its eye on here either. The  WSJ  reports  Pichai saying the company hopes its Android platform helps developers create many types of wearable devices – with Pichai apparently throwing out  a sensor-laden, Android-powered “smart jacket” scenario as one possibility.

Wearable tech remains one of the hottest topics of SXSW and despite a few sessions that looked at other applications, the overwhelming majority of talks focused around health.

There was a diverse range of speakers addressing the topic, among them former basketball player Shaquille O’Neil who advocated his reliance on Fitbit to drive him to complete his 10,000 daily steps.

British cardiologist Graham Stuart spoke of conducting a study to see if NikeFuel can prolong the lives of children living with congenital heart defects.

While in favour of this smart technology, Stuart thinks it’s an interesting way to prescribe exercise to children in a language that they understand, he did warn of a darker bi-product of incentivised wellness and the data it creates, claiming that in the future it could affect our insurance premiums and ability to get a job.

Despite the fact that smart band sales are expected to increase from 8 million to 45 million over the next three years, some analysts have been weary about the lack of true innovation in the sector. That’s where ‘implantables’ come in.

The ‘heart attack ringtone’, for example, is an implanted device mentioned at SXSWi that senses internal changes that are a precursor to a heart attack and rings ahead to warn you. Additionally, the development of contact lenses that constantly track insulin levels in diabetes patients show the possibilities of how tech can make giant leaps when it comes to our wellbeing.  This was summed up by one of the most commonly tweeted paraphrases from a Byron Reese talk; ‘live another 25 years and there’s a high probability that you may never die’.


With booths by everyone from Nintendo to the National Guard, there was a lot on offer at the  SXSW  gaming expo.

By far the biggest hit was Mario Kart 8. Boasting new controls, a re-imagined design, and tons of innovative features, it’s no wonder Mario Kart 8 was such a draw. With a release date set for the end of May, it might also hold the commercial fate of the Wii U in its cute hands.

Mobile game Tangami, created by Nyamyam Studios, was one of the most solid indie releases to be displayed at SXSWi. Having been out for only a few weeks, it’s already made it on to the Editor’s Choice list in the iOS store.

Tangami makes innovative use of touch controls, as you guide the main character through puzzles of stairways, mountains, and wolves, all rendered in a gorgeous, Japanese-inspired pop-up world. The main character bends his 2D frame to get through the challenging puzzle levels, making for game that’s hard on the brain but easy on the eyes.

The festival also contains its own awards ceremony and this year the top prizes went to The Last of Us (Game of the Year Award), Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons (Excellence in Gameplay Award), Bioshock Infinite (Excellence in Art Award), Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch (Excellence in Animation Award), Grand Theft Auto V (Excellence in Technical Achievement Award).

The tech industry’s love affair with drones

Chaotic Moon Studios are the inventors of the C.U.P.I.D. (Chaotic Unmanned Personal Intercept Drone) that includes an 80,000 volt stun gun and acts as a non-lethal defence mechanism. They decided to address some of the real world issues surrounding weaponised, patrolling drones at this year’s SXSW.

The C.U.P.I.D. was unveiled publicly to demonstrate that these technologies are already possible. Chaotic Moon Studios used the event as an opportunity to spur an educated conversation around the drone industry and engage citizens, police, Congress and the FAA.   Small commercial drone usage is a hot topic at present, with Amazon looking to launch a drone delivery service and similar concepts being implemented by big brands the world over.


Emphasising the truly interactive nature of the festival, it was interesting to note how wearable tech is already being utilised within the health industry in the US.

Apparently, 27% of Americans are wearing some form of medical sensor on (or in) their bodies. These sensors tell us how or various organs are performing, when we need to take our medication and the right dose.

The same goes for gaming, with Nintendo keen to move in to the health arena with its upcoming Quality of Life console, Microsoft used the event to talk of its own innovative approach to the sector.

Stephen Kim of Microsoft spoke of Xbox kinetic body tracking – tech built for gamers – and its ability to translate sign language into text and vice versa. This, according to Kim will potentially allow deaf people to work in places never thought possible.

Edward Snowden’s tech industry rally cry

SXSW snowden-tmagArticle

Although his opponents cried foul, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden did manage to make an appearance at the festival (albeit via video link from Russia through several proxies).

Snowden insisted that his actions had improved the national security of the United States rather than undermined it, and declared that he would do it all again despite the personal sacrifices he had endured.

Speaking in front of a backdrop of the US constitution, Snowden used the culture and technology conference to urge developers, cryptographers and privacy activists to build better tools to protect the privacy of technology users.

The goal, he said, was that encryption would ultimately be considered as a necessary, basic protection, and not something easily dismissed as an “arcane black art.” Ultimately, Snowden said, that will “allow us to reclaim the open and trusted Internet.”

About the Author

Saqib Shah

Tech/gaming journalist for What Mobile magazine and website. Interests include film, digital media and foreign affairs.

Share this article