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SXSW SEES HARDWARE AT THE FORE

It can be quite tough to pin down the perennial SXSW conference. This year was a curious mix of technology and brand, with Al Gore and Jay-Z. It can leave you wondering who’s trying to achieve what, and why. But we’ve got it figured. Last issue we referred to the conference as the biggest party in town, and we weren’t wrong. Meltwater buzz analysis of the event has revealed that most people spent their time asking which party to go to that night. We’re only human.

Amongst the festivities though there were the usual nuggets that we come to expect at these conferences. First up it’s worth noting that as SXSW has grown to fame, so too have the costs of exhibiting there – and that is likely to push many smaller startups out of the frame. So if we come to expect fewer surprises, what did shine through?

One commentator pointed out the prevalence of hardware on show. It’s an interesting observation, and for us, it indicates the internet of things/devices/whatever else we want to call it, is well and truly underway.

Google led the charge with their Glasses, which attracted the bulk of the brand social buzz at the event. The LeapMotion also control set won column inches. It looks set to make gesture controls for computers a relatively mainstream affair, although the kinect-like controls could prove to be a bit, ‘Marmite’. NASA also topped the brand buzz, with a scale model of its successor to Hubble, The James Webb Telescope. It’s 100x more powerful, can ‘see’ both visible and invisible light and can even monitor atmospheric conditions, enabling a search for earth-like planets…

In a conference more dominated by hardware, it follows that software revelations were lacking. The conference that launched Foursquare had a visit from its founder, who presented a wonderful, pulsing human data map of NY location checkins during hurricane Sandy. ┬áThe app is still growing at a rate of 1.5m new users per month, as it continues to transition from location gaming, to location search advertising. And being that Foursquare is used by Facebook-owned Instagram, perhaps Facebook and Foursquare’s futures are closer than their competitive positioning assumes. Elsewhere there was another boost for the future of mobile payments, with wallet app Isis welcoming a wave of attention.

One new app did manage to break through at SXSW. There is a universal truth which can always be relied upon: for every action there is a reaction, and that truth has fueled the startup Hater. Their new app encourages people to take photos of things that suck or that they generally… hate. It’s a kickback to the ‘Like’ culture which reigns across social media. But something here is amiss. Don’t we just end up ‘liking’ the fact that someone hates something, rather than hating that they hate it? Crash.

So our overall theme for the 2013 conferences continues; it’s more about consolidation than revelation this year. But if hardware continues to take a limelight, it’s likely it’ll be building the fabric of the new connected world.