Key learnings and experiences from SXSW

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Day 1: What makes an experience real?

A fireside chat with Steve Dembo and Caitlin Krause.

One of the topics, that really interests me and that is quite present here at SXSW is the development of VR. Today I got the chance to join a fireside discussion with two experts in this field. The topic of the talk was how we will distinguish between virtual and real experiences in the future, and if we will continue to regard them as different.

We are not there yet, but it will become harder and harder not to forget that you are in a virtual world as, and when we will be able to activate more of our senses, when the picture quality reaches the level of what our eyes can perceive and when the latency is small enough. And because of the technical development, it's just a matter of time.

Already today the technology is being used to cure people with a fear of heights, of flying and of different kind of animals. Banks are training employees on how to react in case of a rubbery. Walmart trains personnel to be ready for the chaos at Black Friday. A few months ago, I visited Vestas. Here I got the chance to crawl inside a virtual Windmill. Once you got the VR headset on a virtual elevator would take you to the top. Suddenly you found yourself 150 meters above the ground on the top of the wind turbine. And to make it more realistic you would feel the wind in your face. I must admit that it was a bit scary and that you didn't want to walk all the way to the edge.

But how do you tell and create a VR story in the right way to make the experience as immersive as possible? Well, it takes techniques that we are still developing. In a VR experience you need to orientate yourself in a different way: Where am I? Why am I here? And who am I in this story? Caitlin Krause has just released her book: Mindful by design where she outlines what we know so far when it comes to creating these new experiences.

Krause gave a few examples of great storytelling in this new format:

Inspired by the movie: Green Book, there is a VR movie out called: Travelling while black.

At Stanford University they are researching this topic as well ( They are examining how you can create empathy around the topic of racism. That has lead to a very appraised story called The 1000 cut Journey.

Earlier Stanford also released another piece called: Becoming Homeless that was first shown at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2017.

At this year's Tribeca Film Festival kicking off the 24th. Of April, they will launchTribeca immersivewith the debut of more than 30 new immersive VR experiences. So, this new story format is evolving fast and as we speak. Of course, SXSW has it's own VR/AR Track that will kick off together with the SXSW Film festival the 11th of March.

Day 2: Blockchains in the Educational System

One of the technologies that have taken the hardest hit since last SXSW is the Blockchain area and especially the case of Cryptocurrencies and ICO´s. But this doesn't mean that the technology behind Blockchain solutions is not maturing and that development has stopped. In fact, it has been quite interesting to hear how this technology is being utilized and tested to solve some of the larger issues in the educational area.

Andrew Linford from Novo Ed and Tyler Samstag from Allegheny Intermediate Unit both touched on the area in their presentations at the SXSW EDU conference.

Tyler highlighted six reasons why this technology is relevant for the Educational System:

  • It gives room for self-sovereignty
  • It creates Transparency
  • It's Immutable
  • It Disintermediates
  • It creates trust
  • It allows for new ways of collaboration

One way to use this technology is for distributing certificates or exam papers. When they are delivered in a Blockchain format, you will not be able to change them or to tamper with them and neither will it be possible to make false versions of exam papers.

MIT is already doing this today

Another example is the platform called GreenLight that allows students to store and share their evidence of lifelong learning achievements.

A similar platform has already been developed for programmers to show their skills, it is called Indorse.

The future of Blockchain in education

Three interesting future scenarios where highlighted during the presentations:

1. Schools as dynamic learning ecosystems

Where achievements are updated in my personal record dynamically, so I always have a place where my data is stored in a trusted, secure but sharable way.

2. Creating a professional learning passport for teachers

So they can store and show their track record when moving from one school to another or even between states or countries.

3. Creating room for collective decision making

Supporting decentralization by allowing for new ways of collaboration through the use of smart contracts.

If you want to read up on why Blockchain technology is still extremely relevant and important, then IDEO´s article called Why Designers Need to Start Thinking About Blockchain is a great place to start.

Day 3: Building personality into AI

How will technology and humans interact in the future?

AI is permeating pretty much all service areas these days. And in a near term future, we will be interacting with bots, agents, algorithms and other forms of AI and technology pretty much every time we need a job done - but also when we're bored, lonely or just in the mood to be entertained.

There's a lot of focus on the technology side, but an even more important aspect of this development is how we create the right experience and interaction, so we end up being able to live with it in a way so it doesn't feel too weird.

There's a saying that“Technology well applied becomes part of daily life”. But the experience you get today when interacting with digital agents shows us that there is still quite a way to go.

So how do we get there? That was the topic of a very interesting panel with people from Microsoft, Google, Slack, and Mercedes Benz.

First of all,will everything have a personality in the future?And should it? How funky can a bank app be before it becomes awkward?

A lot of relevant questions and challenges were raised during the one-hour conversation:

  • Should digital services have multiple personalities that would change depending on the person interacting?
    A good working example of this is the app called Carrot - a motivational to-do list with several personalities for you to choose between
  • Will a digital personality have to change over time?
  • When do we want our stuff to act as assistants and when should they just work as appliances?
    Mercedes mentioned that most of the time it's completely fine just to be able to send commands towards your car, but on longer commutes, you might want a person to talk to, you want to be able to have a conversation or to ask deeper questions.
  • Should the AI be different Monday morning as opposed to Friday afternoon?
  • Should it reflect on signals from the human it is interacting with, trying to capture the mood I am in?
    Slack mentioned that they are working on understanding moods in writing - basically getting the difference between you answering “Okay”, “Okay!” Okay.” Or just “´kay”
  • How do we teach our AI when to interact and when to leave people alone?
  • How should it mix between being formal and informal?
    Slack told that if a person writes a message with more than 23 emoji reactions in it, Slack will respond “ I think you're overreacting” They allow for this bit of humor because they know that a person doing this is NOT busy at that time
  • How does an algorithm earn the trust to be playful?
    Is it okay for a chatbot to stop you if you are texting your ex-girlfriend at 2 am in the night?
  • Should these social norms and constructs be built in out-of-the-box or should it be learned over time
  • How do we handle the clash between different cultures when it comes to forms of interactions?
  • How do you train an algorithm to be wrong in the right way?
    If it eg. suggest Thai food and you reject that suggestion, how do you catch the difference between not being in the mood for that kind of food or simply detesting Thai food?

All these areas need to be addressed when designing intelligent systems that are supposed to simulate human beings. It's not a simple task, but nevertheless extremely important if we expect regular people to accept these new kinds of services.

Will our language change?

Finally, just as social media has changed our language and way of communicating (just think about abbreviations and emoticons), how will the introduction of AI in our daily life on a broader scale impact our language and way of talking? Will we be barking orders at each other? Will we use new kinds of spoken abbreviations because these will be accepted and understood by the digital agents. And will we stop saying please to each other?

Day 4: Key takeaways from four different Trend Report

Over the last few days, I have attended sessions with several Futurists and Trend Experts here at SXSW as they launched their 2019 reports. While addressing a lot of different topics and directions, they all paint a picture of a digital future speeding up in all directions.

Digital Trends and the Impact of Privilege

First up was Tanarra Schneider, talking about the Fjords Trend Report

This report was actually released earlier this year, but Tanarra took a quite interesting angle in her presentation. Because while the Trends might be interesting, she explained why we have to be critical because very often these trends are only for the privileged few.

The report predicts that we in the near future will want to turn off all the noise (Silence is gold). But silence comes with a prize, and who is going to pay? So, there is a risk, that digital silence becomes a luxury only the rich and empowered can afford.

They also predict that we will have to stop using so much unnecessary plastic (The last straw), but poor people that can't afford to go to Farme's Markets or live in a food desert with no good shops, they will have to rely on food packaged in plastic in order to survive.

So read the report but remember to take it with a grain of salt and look through the eyes of the unprivileged as well.

7 Trends that will shape the future

Rohit Bhargava launched the 9th edition of his book: Non-Obvious Trends

The books have become bestsellers and it is a pretty entertaining show. In his speech he highlighted 7 of his trends:

  • Retro Trust- Collaborate with the old
  • Muddled Masculinity- Encourage the non-conform
  • Innovation Envy- Play offensive with innovation
  • Artificial Influence- Don't hide the artificial ingredients
  • Enterprise Empathy- Use “Mede with Empathy” as a strategy
  • Robot Renaissance- Embrace them
  • Back Storytelling- Find the meaning, then tell the story

I recommend buying the book to get a better understanding of how his framework is built and to get the full overview

Design in Tech 2019

The launch of John Maeda's highly expected yearly Design in Tech Report at SXSW always draws a full crowd, and this year was no exception.

While entertaining, I personally think that this year's presentation was a bit unstructured, and I would regard his report more as a collection of his thoughts and as a repository of great inspiration to dig into.

Maybe it's because he is working hard on his new book coming out late this year called How to speak machine

2019 Tech Trends Report

My personal favorite is Amy Webb's humongous 2019 Tech Trends Report

Again, this year her session was completely sold out. She presented the 12th annual edition of their work and it is an impressive achievement. This year, they have selected 315 different technology trends in a book that weighs 5 pounds!

I was so fortunate to be invited to a roundtable discussion with Amy after her session, where we got a chance to talk about the importance of business leaders understanding the tech trends that not only surround their industry but also the adjacent ones that might have a huge impact in the years to come.

The future Today Institute has categorized the trends for 26 different industries and created 48 different future scenarios, so all you have to do is to dig in. The report is available for free as open source.

But my best takeaway was that I got her only printed copy to take with me back to Denmark. So, I might not be getting very much sleep on the 12-hour flight back to Scandinavia, because I got 380 pages of Tech Trends to study


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