Following the suit of the Lone Star state’s “Everything is bigger” dictum, the minds behind South by Southwest Interactive are capitalizing this year on the Austin-centered fest’s cutting-edge participants to mold a smorgasbord of events that inspires and elevates the user experience.
“We’re ultimately a conference about creativity,” says fest director Hugh Forrest, who has been at the helm since 1994. “It just happens to be that most of the attendees are speaking the language of technology.”
To this end, the programming for the conference’s 20th installment, which runs March 8-12, will feature more than 800 presentations, panels and keynotes, and will cover the realms of education, new business models, wireless, fashion and food, among others.
Traditionally the smallest portion of the SXSW family of events, Forrest says Interactive wouldn’t have survived if the music branch had not been paying the bills. That said, however, beginning about 2004-05, Interactive started seeing significant growth and in the past couple years has become the biggest part of the event in terms of industry attendance.
Forrest attributes many factors to that growth, but two of the key players are social media and start-ups — and social media start-ups. Interactive saw Twitter and Foursquare stage their coming-out parties there in 2007 and 2009, respectively. This year Forrest says social media will continue to be an emerging trend, and he’s particularly looking forward to an event with former NBA star Shaquille O’Neal — the second-highest followed athlete in the world with more than 6.7 million followers — who will join the fest to talk about social media interaction and strategy.
Other important trends to grab the spotlight, per Forrest, this year include 3D printing, location-based services, next generation social networking and next generation devices such as the oft-mentioned Google Glasses.
Interactive advisory board member Noah Kuttler adds that the programming represents an eclectic bag of gems — ranging from Charlie Nox’s “Stop Staring at My Tumor, My Boobs Are Down Here,” a talk on dating with health issues, to Ben Huh’s “The Art of Making Fun of Yourself,” which adds humor to your social recipe — all of which speak to the fest’s outside-the-box expansion.
Over the years Forrest has seen the fest explode on an evolutionary scale: 20 years ago multimedia content meant presenting CD-ROMs to attendees. This year, Interactive has tapped SpaceX topper Elon Musk, who will discuss private space exploration, as a keynote speaker. One of the emerging trends of 2013, Forrest says outer space is becoming a tangible reality, and the fest has 10-15 events digging into galactic territory.
“We are an event that very much is a reflection of the creative, innovative community that attends South by Southwest,” Forrest says. “We’ve grown because we’ve been able to tap into this community and understand it better.”