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Ideas, Innovations, and Disruptions at SXSWi 2013.

SXSW: Technologies for Instinct, Emotion, and Serendipity


SXSW is known for the frenzy it creates around pinpointing the next big thing. In 2012, start-ups dominated the conference and you couldn’t walk a block without being inundated with promotions for hot new apps that promised to take you to the next level of connectedness. This year, fascinations with “the glowing rectangle” seem to have subsided, and there is instead a focused effort to articulate what we value as emotional beings in a physical world, and how the digital realm can accommodate our pursuits for a better life. Moving from panel discussion to solo presentation to special-interest meetup, I find myself engaged in a collective effort among conference participants to consider the psychological shift taking place as we invite technology into our cities, homes, pockets, and eventually (with Google Glass) to the very tip of our nose.

Instinctual Interaction

Gestural interactions have been top of mind for many, and Leap Motion co-founders David Holz and Michael Buckwald are steering their efforts towards bringing technology closer in line with human instinct and rational intent. On Saturday morning, they shared a demonstration of their 3D modeling software that identifies fingertips as the controller thereby providing more direct manipulation of objects on the screen. Holz differentiated their product by defining gesture as a “sign language for communicating with software,” whereas Leap Motion products rely on the natural instinct humans have for picking up an object and manipulating it directly.

While their critical assessment of existing interface tools was accurate, I found their presentation lacking when they compared the Leap Motion interaction with the experience of shaping a piece of clay. Material properties of physical objects are incredibly difficult to replicate in the virtual world and these metaphors often limit a user’s perception of what possibilities the tool offers. What I found truly exciting about their panel discussion was David Holz’s anecdotal account of experimenting with rotational commands for the on-screen object. Rather than grabbing the object and turning it in a circle, which would stop at his wrist’s rotational limit, he instead discovered a strategy for using his fingertips as laser beams that could penetrate the object and then rotate it infinitely by creating circular motions with his fingers. In this moment, Holz understood the physical properties of his hands, discovered the virtual extension that the software offered them, and was able to combine these concepts in his mind to discover a natural behavior for manipulating the object. The co-founders ended their presentation by suggesting that a future with this technology “will be a much more human world than what’s currently around us.”

Technology to Amplify our Humanness

Serendipity is a curious topic to raise at a conference where networking is strategic and idea exchange is prevalent. Are the connections we make in a dense space of like-minded individuals coincidental and does technology accelerate or inhibit those moments of alignment? The fuzzy space of serendipity was the focus of conversation on Sunday afternoon with perspectives from Joichi Ito of MIT Media Lab, Kevin Rose from Google Ventures, and John Perry Barlow of, with moderation from IDEO’s Colin Raney. Joichi Ito shared his personal take on serendipity as being a result of human capacity for pattern recognition. Ito referenced the fact that as we age, our cognitive processes slow, but our capabilities for pattern recognition increase which in turn improves our chances for finding serendipitous encounters. He suggested that our evolving relationship with technology increases serendipitous experiences because the mind adapts to rapid consumption of content by aggressively looking for patterns and parsing elements for context. From this perspective, we can see how technology exposes our humanness and challenges us to sharpen the instincts that were fundamental to our evolution in the first place. The panelists went on to discuss the merits of education and career strategies for Generation Flux, but the conversation continuously returned to the issue of leveraging the technological “noise” for a heightened sense of where to steer one’s passion and find your own serendipity in life.

Beyond issues of human instinct and emotional connections, what excites me the most about the ideas and products coming out of SXSWi 2013 is there appears to be a collective desire for pushing technology to our periphery so that we can finally look up from our smart phones and reengage with the world. While conversations of ambient technology have been around for decades, we seem to have reached a tipping point where users desire less interaction with gadgets and instead prefer the Internet of Things to quietly communicate behind the scenes. Wearable technology has been widely discussed among the SXSW audience this year and points to a future where technology surrounds us but continuously adapts to our physical shape and social behavior. As SXSWi 2013 comes to a close, I almost find myself asking the question, Do we finally have enough technology to return to a more natural way of living? 

Jennifer Dunnam is an interaction designer in frog's Austin studio.