South by SouthWest (SXSW) is coming to an end, but for me, it is already over. I’m currently at the Schipol airport in Amsterdam, waiting for the connecting flight that will take me back to Italy. And since I’ve some hours to spend, I thought it could have been nice to tell you some thoughts I had about my experience at SXSW this year.
This has been my second year at SXSW: 2022 was the first time I have attended SXSW. I had there one of the best times of my life with my colleague Maud Clavier: lots of fun, lots of new friends, and good business. I couldn’t have asked for more. That’s why this year I decided I absolutely wanted to come back, and together with me there was not only Maud but three other colleagues (Lapo, Bastien, Florian). Honestly speaking, I went there with mild expectations. Last year’s edition went so well for me, that I considered it an exception: it’s a bit like when it happens that one evening you go out with friends and you have a magical night together where everything is perfect… and you know well that whatever you will do to try to replicate it, it won’t happen again. It has been one of a kind. So I went there with no expectations of replicating last year, because I already knew it would have been impossible.
And in fact, I’ve found this year at SXSW a bit different. But still very cool. It was a great pleasure to see that the same chill atmosphere of last year was still there. It’s something very typical of this event… maybe it’s because of the city, maybe because it is an event that mixes technology people with creative people… maybe because it is full of parties… I don’t know the reason. But I know that at SXSW everyone has a smile on their face and is ready to meet new people. All the other events are not the same: in Austin, you can really go to a totally random person with the SXSW badge around the neck and start speaking with this random stranger and become friend with him/her… and maybe start to have fun together. Or you meet a friend of yours, and he introduces you to a partner of his, and then when you are speaking together, another person joins the group and you meet this new person, too. It’s cool for networking, and everything happens so naturally. Just to make an example: on the last day I was in Austin, we just entered the convention center a few minutes to buy some souvenirs for our friends… and there I saw a friend of mine, greeted her, and she introduced us to a person from a very cool big company, so that later we will connect with her on Linkedin to evaluate collaborations. It’s just like that all the time.
There were still a lot of parties… every night we had to choose where to go among many different opportunities: some were officially organized by the SXSW, and many others were organized by other attendees or institutions. Parties are an integral part of the experience: they are a good place where to have fun after a hard day of work, but also a nice place where to meet new people, too. As I’ve said last year, you never know when you are working and when you are having fun. It’s all a huge mix… you dance, then you see someone with the T-shirt of a company you want to collaborate with and you go speak with him and so you connect. It’s a mix of fun and work. If I look back on this week I’ve spent there, I don’t feel like I’ve worked. Then I look at the long list of people with whom I have to follow up on Monday and I’m like “how the hell have these opportunities happened?”.
By the way in general I felt this year SXSW to have had a bit less energy than in 2022. I don’t know how to say it… it is like there was a bit less enthusiasm, and also slightly fewer opportunities, at least for what I was looking for. I thought about it and found two possible explanations:
- Last year was the first physical SXSW after the lockdowns: people really wanted to have their life back, to have their fun back. Everyone really wanted to have a lot of fun. This year, we are already used to going to physical events, so it was not so special anymore. Let’s say we are back to standard levels of energy
- The current tech landscape is not in its best moment ever: all the big companies (Meta, Microsoft, etc…) are laying off people. And it’s more difficult to find opportunities when companies and investors are more careful about their spending.
The number of attendees seemed higher to me, so maybe there was less energy, but more people to meet.
I also noticed that this year there was much less food offered for free. Which for me is totally unacceptable: why should I go to an event if there is no free food? It’s the basis of my participation in events. Some of the parties were also a bit less fun than last year. But anyway, I had my bright moments, too: for instance, KPMG organized a wonderful dinner for XR people where I ate as if there was no tomorrow. And regarding the parties, I remember a very fun night with a DJ set organized by the French Tech industry… or a night at the Empire with good hip-hop music.
XR and the M-word were one of the main themes of the conference. It was great to see that there was still great attention to immersive realities even if now the metaverse hype has deflated and everyone on Linkedin has become an AI expert. I had the great pleasure to be a speaker in this year’s edition and to speak together with my colleague Maud about the lessons that we have learned while creating our social VR platform for live events and concerts. The speech went great (thanks everyone for your support). There were many other friends (e.g. Caitlin Krause, Tony Parisi, Charlie Fink, etc…) having talks as well. It was cool to see so many talks about XR, but the only problem was that many of them were in parallel, so I had to choose every moment which talks to follow… and it was for me a bit like when a kid has to choose between his mother and his father. All of them had cool titles and featured friends of mine speaking: it was very hard to choose.
SXSW organizers have chosen a fantastic lineup of XR speakers. The only problem I’ve found with the conferences is that since I’m already in the field, I already knew almost everything that the speakers were saying. Maybe it could be cool to have speeches for different levels of expertise of the audience: I mean, I could easily fall asleep during a talk called “What Is The Metaverse?”, while I will be all ears on a talk about “The evolution of the networking stack of the metaverse”. I know, I’m too nerdy and probably I would be the only spectator…
There was a vast showcase of XR Experiences, which showed many interesting AR/VR experiences, with also some WTF here and there. I’ve just managed to try a few, but I was impressed by how many cool experiences were there. There were also other XR companies that were exhibiting in the main Expo, in the Innovation Showcase, or other showcases. Some others had private demos provided in hotel rooms (this is how I tried HoloKit or Contact CI gloves, for instance). I did a demo myself to a person we could collaborate with: I took out my Quest 2 from my backpack and made her try our VR concert in the corridors of the venue!
So it was cool to see that XR was still rocking. As I’ve said, I don’t think we are in a Winter of XR… we are more like in Autumn… a moment of stasis of the ecosystem, where we are waiting for a new jump in technology.
As my friend Charlie Fink says, SXSW is an event that always leaves you with FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), even if you have been there. The problem is that there are so many things to do, and so many people to meet, that you can’t do them all. It’s just impossible. So there are always a lot of things you will be sad about not having done. For instance, I didn’t manage to try an experience called Symbiosis which was very cool, I could not attend the Interactive Opening Party, and I haven’t met my friends of Ristband/Miroshot, Cathy Hackl, or Tony Parisi. I’ve done a lot and still missed a lot. This is so South-By.
It wouldn’t be an article of mine without some pieces of advice, so let me give you some advice if you want to attend this event yourself next year:
- Go there with a friendly and open attitude. Absorb the vibes of the festival and be happy and chill all the time
- Go there to meet people. Don’t go with a group of your colleagues with the idea of spending the whole day and night speaking with them. At that point, just organize a trip with them to another location and do some team building. If you go to SXSW, you must meet new people, otherwise, you waste many opportunities. If you are there with many people from your company, split into small groups of 1-3 people and be open to connecting with others. When you don’t know what to do, speak with strangers: Every time I was in line to attend an XR experience, I started speaking with the people around me, to see if there could be an interesting conversation. If you don’t know how to break the ice, don’t be afraid: a simple “Hello, I’m Tony, nice to meet you” works like a charm. Of course substitute “Tony” with your name… or keep using it, if you want to confuse people about how many Tonys are in this world
- Plan ahead of the event who you want to meet: SXSW Social a nice online tool that tells you the names of all the attendees and the speakers, and you can filter them by company. The serendipity of randomly meeting people is nice, but being focused and prepared is even better. See who you want to meet, and try to contact them a few days before the event to organize meetings. If they are speakers, go watch their speech, and then after it ends, go speak with them
- Very few people read the Inbox of the official SXSW app. This year even fewer than last year. So contact people via all possible means: SXSW app, Linkedin, Twitter. And since it’s hard to read notifications when you are spending the whole day networking, trying experiences, and partying, it’s better to contact people before the event, because, during it, they may not read your messages
- Attend parties. Again, they are part of the experience because they are fun, but also they give you new networking opportunities. You are not wasting time attending to them
- Prepare for a marathon: the SXSW experience is very cool, but also very tiresome. I had to wake up early in the morning, work on the blog and/or with the developers at VRROOM, then go to the event, attend conferences, do networking, then the night do the parties until 12 am at least. After a few days, I’m devastated. But it’s ok, I enjoyed the full experience and now I can sleep during the weekend
- Beware of the evolution of the festival over the days. The first days are for the tech, but then at a certain point, everything is about music and movies. This means that the most opportunities for us in the tech industries are the in the first days… but the music brings a lot of cool parties. When the music part of the event starts, many people arrive: the first day of music, which is one of the last in tech, you have people from both ecosystems, so the event is very crowded. You will have a hard time booking experiences. For instance, the VR expo was kinda empty the first day, was still doable the two days after but was super crowded the last two days. The last two days in tech there were long lines to try everything, so it was impossible for me to try anything
- You will miss something and that’s ok. As I’ve said, there are so many things to do, that you will do a lot and still miss a lot. Don’t regret what you have not tried, but be thankful for the many amazing things you did.
And that’s it… or maybe not… let me leave you with a last picture to make you laugh. Since I lost my connecting flight at New York JFK, my colleague Lapo and I were the last ones to arrive at the house booked by the company, so we were left with the worst rooms. I was so forced to sleep in one of the rooms of the kids and this was my bed…
Ok, now that’s it for real. I hope to see you next year in Austin for SXSW 2024!
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