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SXSW Interactive Wrap-Up: So Much Fest, So Little Time

Note: We have covered the horrific news that two people were killed by a drunk driver in downtown Austin last night. Check out our breaking news blog, the Two-Way, for updates. This post wraps-up SXSW Interactive, which closed on Tuesday night.

If you can get past the swelled attendance and all the swag being shoved in your face, South by Southwest Interactive is a great super-gathering to learn about tomorrow's technology trends and the people behind them. But since it's such a sprawling event — literally hundreds of sessions, parties and meetups going on at any given hour — synthesizing it is a challenge. Individual experiences are like snowflakes. Here's a rundown of some of the ideas I came across, and a round-up of what we covered for NPR airwaves and blogs:

Wearables: What It All Means

Google Glass explorers abounded at SXSW, wearing the full spectrum of colors that the tiny computing headset comes in: charcoal, shale, cotton, sky and tangerine. New York Magazine got around to the Glass Explorer meetup. At the conference, attendees pondered the privacy questions that naturally come about — when wearable cameras snap at any moment, whose freedom should be protected? The wearer or the people in the crowd? The cultural issues cropped up at numerous panels, too. Do wearables make us more connected, or detach us further? The coming onslaught of watches, Google Glass getting more mainstream and even contact lenses that are in development mean the larger conversations about this topic will continue.

Neil deGrasse Tyson arrives at the screening of "Cosmos: A Space Time Odyssey" during SXSW 2014.
Michael Buckner / AP
Neil deGrasse Tyson arrives at the screening of "Cosmos: A Space Time Odyssey" during SXSW 2014.

Location-Based Social Networking

Not too long ago, Highlight was the hot app at SXSW. Highlight marries GPS data and the social media profiles of your connections — and strangers who choose to share this data — to let you know who's close by, where they're at and whether they're walking, riding or idle. This idea never quite caught on, but leaders of Highlight and a similar app — SocialRadar — think they're just early to a coming trend. SocialRadar launched earlier this year and is also marrying social check-ins with Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn profile information so that when you walk into a crowded room, you can check the app to see why someone across the room looks so familiar.

The Surveillance State

Julian Assange, Glenn Greenwald and Edward Snowden headlined appearances on the topics of privacy and security, which ended up being "the breakout trend" of the 2014 fest, as named by the festival judges and audience votes. Snowden presumably chose to talk at SXSW because the audience is tech-savvy to know the issues but not limited to hardcore hackers. Our sister blog The Two-Way covered the Snowden talk online, and Steve Henn reported on the speech on-air.

Reputation Help for Introverts

There is no shortage of software, sites and apps people peddle at SXSW, especially once they learn you're a technology reporter. But one idea I randomly came across was ROIKOI, a way to anonymously rank your co-workers to say whether you'd recommend they be hired, fired or something in between. Lest you fear winding up at the bottom of the heap, only the top 50 percent of people ranked will show up in its searchable database. Founder Andy Wolfe said he designed this to help the introverts among us, who might perform poorly in interviews but are so essential to great teams and organizations. Wolfe sells it this way: "It's based on a very simple question, which is, of all the people you've ever worked with, would you like to work with them again?"

Internet meme "Success Kid" was once a baby (as seen on his shirt), but now he's all grown up. Elise Hu mirrors the pose.
/ Courtesy of Callie Richmond
Courtesy of Callie Richmond
Internet meme "Success Kid" was once a baby (as seen on his shirt), but now he's all grown up. Elise Hu mirrors the pose.

A Round-Up

We also explored how hardware is making a comeback, the coming battle over the future of television and how technology is powering not only much improved virtual reality in gaming, but immersive storytelling as well. I was really excited about the tech-centric new shows coming out from HBO and AMC. The pilots are promising.

Meanwhile, the SXSW team inducted Joi Ito, who heads the MIT Media Lab, into the SXSW Interactive Festival Hall of Fame. And attendees voted Neil deGrasse Tyson the speaker of the event. Of course, we ate lots and lots of tacos and barbecue, and had run-ins with famous Internet memes, like "Success Kid," as seen here. For additional coverage, check out the Austin American-Statesman podcast which features the interesting things those journos got to see, including the rise of the robots and food technology, which I was sad to miss some sessions on.

Thanks, Austin, for another chaotic time, full of serendipity and surprises.

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Elise Hu is a host-at-large based at NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Previously, she explored the future with her video series, Future You with Elise Hu, and served as the founding bureau chief and International Correspondent for NPR's Seoul office. She was based in Seoul for nearly four years, responsible for the network's coverage of both Koreas and Japan, and filed from a dozen countries across Asia.

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