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6 Things We Learned From SXSW 2016

by Amy Wybo

What would you say (or do) if you were not afraid?

It was a bold question from keynote speaker Casey Gerald and it kept popping into my head as I thought about my trip to this year’s SXSW Interactive conference. While much of the visit was about emerging technology and pure entertainment, there was also an interesting undertone this year. The speakers, the sponsors, even the President of the United States seemed to be asking, “What does it all mean, where are we going?”

Here are some of the highlights:

1. Gospel of Doubt

CASEY Opening for President Obama, Casey Gerald, the 29-year-old founder of MBAs Across America, asked the crowd to reconsider how they view their business, their practices and even themselves. He spoke about something he called “the gospel of doubt” and urged all of us to question our beliefs and embrace the uncertainty of life. His conversation with us was peppered with so many incredible insights it’s hard to remember them all. He said, “Most people want to know that they are heard, that they mean something. Not that you know what’s best for them.” And finally, “Our challenges are too big to wait for some central authority to give you permission to act.” Wow.

2. #thanksobama

I was one of two thousand people who were chosen in a raffle to see President Obama speak on Friday. 

I wasn’t sure what to expect but it’s hard not to be excited to see the President of the United States in person.

Referencing the current lawsuit between Apple and the FBI, President Obama noted the legitimate concerns on both sides of the debate. “We accept there is a balance between privacy and security in many other areas of our lives like drunk-driver checkpoints, TSA requirements at the airport, for example. The danger,” he said, “is that if nothing is done to facilitate law enforcement access to critical private data while protecting privacy now, it’s more likely that the issue will be handled badly if something terrible happens down the road and Congress rushes to do something about it without fully understanding what to do.” Definitely something to consider.

While listing several of his administration’s achievements, he also included the Thanks, Obama meme where people criticize him for their own personal troubles and inconveniences including bad weather. I thought, “He gets it!”

3. F Society

The Mr. Robot folks had a huge presence featuring a re-creation of the hit show’s Coney Island hacker headquarters, a 100-foot Mr. Robot Ferris Wheel and the F Society Coney Island Arcade experience.

Premiering at last year’s SXSW, the stars spoke on a panel about the authenticity of TV. It was interesting to learn that Rami Malek, the actor who plays the show’s lead character, actually memorizes actual code to type onscreen in order to make his hacker character look more authentic. Impressive.

4. VR Reigns

Virtual Reality was everywhere in Austin,NASA with the hugely popular Samsung Gear VR Lounge, a corner space across from the convention center where you could experience a virtual ride on two of Six Flags Signature Roller Coasters, including actual moving coaster seats. NASA was also there, offering a peek at their Mars 2030 VR app. Unlike many other virtual reality experiences, its app is not a passive experience. Users will experience what it is like to be a real astronaut, as they walk around on the red planet and go for a drive in the Mars Rover. How cool is that? If your company isn’t doing VR, get going now. There’s a tremendous consumer appetite for VR and most likely, your competition is already thinking about it.

5. Celebrities and Social Media

KERRY.W I caught the interview with Kerry Washington, star of ABC’s hit show Scandal. Yes, I’m a fan. And no, I wasn’t expecting to take much away from her conversation. Except for maybe some pics of whatever fashions she was sporting (a black Dolce & Gabbana dress and Louis Vuitton shoes!) so I could make my friends jealous. But I was totally surprised. With almost 3.8 million Twitter followers, 4 million likes on her Facebook page and 2.4 million on Instagram, she’s actively involved in her social media presence. Even if she doesn’t write a comment personally, she approves everything her team adds. When asked how she feels about negative comments, she replied, “That’s not about me. When someone writes something negative, they’re revealing something about themselves.” Something to think about before you go on your next Facebook rant.

6. Happiness is hard

If you think about it, just about every experience is made up partly of technology and partly of emotions. Smart devices and revolutionary gadgets can improve our lives, but they most likely can’t bring us happiness. These were the closing thoughts at SXSW by speaker Andy Puddicombe. After a giant group meditation with a couple thousand of my closest friends, the former Buddhist monk and co-founder of Headspace (an app that helps you improve focus, mood and mindfulness) led us on an exploration of ourselves. Blending science, technology, and philosophy, he spoke passionately about what it truly means to be happy. How we can tap into our creative potential to reach a healthier life.

So what does it all mean? What’s next? I think I’ll download the Headspace app and get back to you.