Cars, Virtual Reality, and the President at SXSW.

The newest tech offered a look at many industries in a fragmented landscape.

Mariam Aldhahi
March 18, 2016

Every year at SXSW Interactive, tens of thousands of visitors — from tech geeks to angel investors — head to Austin to exchange ideas and see the latest innovations in technology. The conference has grown and it’s no longer a battleground for venture capitalists and app developers looking to break the mould. It has become a summit that weighs the implications of technology that’s built to change how we interact with the environments and individuals around us. 

This year, the themes we’ve read about and talked about, such as VR, driverless cars, and digital government, were expectedly front and center, and we left SXSW with a handful of questions about these topics — questions that will, no doubt, lead us to the next phase of innovation.

The car drives itself. Now what?

What will we do in cars when we don’t need to drive them? Car manufacturers are largely in agreement on how autonomous vehicles should interact with the roads — sensor tech and a talk hosted by Google’s self-driving car director Chris Urmson proved that we’re moving in the right direction — but there are different approaches on what car interiors should do for its riders. 

There’s an opportunity for exploration: In Mercedes’ F015, presented by the researcher and designer behind the project, riders are offered features like 360-degree virtual travel that shows you streets of your choice — Paris, London, Tokyo — regardless of where you really are. “Mixed Reality” superimposes landmarks that are no longer standing where they once were. You can drive past a hologram of the Berlin Wall if you happen to be in Germany. Riders are given the option to become their own tour guides and the luxury car manufacturer attempts to encourage riders to explore the outdoors, even if what they’re seeing isn’t really there.

"Each approach, so different in nature, proved that the landscape is a fragmented one."

The other approach is one rooted in convenience. As Huge creative director Derek Fridman explained on a panel about the future of mobility, a less frills approach would simply allow riders to relax. The car could provide a comfortable space that doesn’t define what a rider can do, it simply accommodates it. Imagine strapping yourself in your car at night and setting your destination for a city eight hours away—a tedious drive for any human driver would become effortless and offers access to places that can feel too far to drive but too close to fly. The two schools of thought on car interiors will shape the future of luxury and standard cars.

VR is everywhere. But why are the experiences so different?

For five days, virtual reality dominated Austin. Some big brands set up stations where they showcased their latest stab at VR. NASA took visitors through the International Space Station and put them in the driver’s seat of the Lunar Rover using Vive headsets and gesture controls. Chevy unveiled their newest car interior with Oculus, and SEGA let attendees race Sonic the Hedgehog while riding exercise bikes connected to Oculus headsets as a lead up to the game's 25th anniversary. Each tried to make VR work for them but each approach, so different in nature, proved that the landscape is still a fragmented one.

A separate experience all together is seeing the progress of VR as a tool for storytelling and empathy. In the New York Times lounge, the VR area showcased the publication’s newest 360-stories, still working off the excitement generated by "Displaced", the publisher’s first VR story which debuted late last year. The new stories, like “Displaced”, were delivered through Google Cardboard and are only a few minutes long, a format restriction caused in part by the limitations of smartphones.

Ryot — the filmmaking company that has largely dominated the social impact VR landscape — was in town to make the case that VR’s advantage was the ability to place users in foreign situations. The studio’s short film, “Confinement,” played a large role in the success of the petition that led to President Obama to ban solitary confinement for juveniles.

The government is going digital. Will it work?

Many have noted the importance of President Obama’s keynote appearance at SXSW Interactive. His call to action was simple: Citizens need to become more engaged in the political process and the government needs to do a better job of making that process accessible to the public. The question is, how? President Obama discussed how digital could impact accessibility and transparency on the federal level, and the White House’s recent release of The Opportunity Project—data and tools that help local civic leaders find resources for their community — proves that we’re on the right track.

Still, simply offering these resources isn’t enough to change the longstanding belief that the government process is archaic and inaccessible. Consider the United States government as a brand looking to reinvent themselves for the digital age: how can they win users that have long found their products unfriendly and hard to use? What might the onboarding process look like?

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