Highlights from SXSW 2013 Part 1: The Year of Hardware

Row of talking shoes

I just got back from Austin for SXSW 2013. I’m still decompressing and recovering from the frenetic pace as well as the BBQ overload but wanted to start to capture my thoughts from what turned out to be one of the best Southby’s I’ve ever experienced. Yup, despite my thoughts after last year, my initial thoughts are that it was the best one, if not in the top 2.

More on this in a bit though. I’ve decided to split up my SXSW wrapup post into a couple of different parts since there was just so much going on…you’d be scrolling forever in a single post.
I made some improvements to my badge #ehteam2013
Most people ask me, upon returning, what was the one ‘big’ thing you saw this year. I’ve been going for seven years now and was there when Facebook, FourSquare and Twitter launched (or at least took off). The last few years have been full of big applications that blew up due to the influx of savvy tech folks in Austin to get exposed to them. This year felt different though…definitely there was no shortage of street teams shoving t-shirts and branded swag in my face for various online services but the obvious vibe I noticed was that it was the “Year of Hardware”. Many cool new things, hardware related, were announced, released, or put on display that normally would be limited to CES or similar electronics shows. I think the reason for this (and many people share my opinion) is that open source hardware platforms, Kickstarter and other crowd funding programs have all combined to truly make hardware much more accessible to anyone, not just the big companies.

SXSW 2013

I was fortunate to speak this year about something that I think fits into this year of hardware: 3D printing. I gave a talk about my experiences with this emerging technology that have basically been covered on this very blog (hit my 3D Printing category for the back story). The current crop of hobby 3d printers wouldn’t be possible without open source hardware combined with great open source software.

Photo by John Bollwitt

Photo by John Bollwitt

Before I spoke, the CEO of Milkshake Labs, Connor Zwick gave a great talk about why he dropped out of Harvard to form a hardware startup. It was a very interesting talk that was a great lead in to my talk about how 3d printing changed my life.

I didn’t expect more than a handful of people showing up (it was on Sunday morning) but it ended up being a standing room only affair with a bunch of friendly faces in the room to cheer me on (thanks for that!). It would seem my talk struck the right chord and got a very nice write up on Salon.com where the writer chose to hear me talk instead of Guy Kawasaki and the founder of Whole Foods.

Hardware, it would seem, is where it’s at. Here’s a few more of my experiences that builds the case for hardware:

The Google Playground
Unlike last year, where Google took over an entire neighbourhood with their “Google Village”, this year they opted for a smaller venue, the “Google Playground”. Their focus was on showcasing some of the experiments their working on, rather than all their current properties like the Village did.

I was expecting/hoping to see Google Glass demos inside but they weren’t to be found other than this guy:

Google Glasses...oh wait #notgoogleglasses #ehteam2013

although I did get a chance to see the real Project Glass in person…unfortunately I was asked not to photograph them as they were a prototype. Yes, they were as cool as you think they are.

Instead, Google showed us the Talking Shoe. The basic premise is that while we have lots of ways to record various bits of data about how many steps we’ve walked, calories burned, etc. with tools like Nike’s Fuelband and the Fitbit, the data is just that, data. Google wanted to find a way to humanize that spreadsheet of your activity level and came up with the talking shoe. Using off the shelf technology like the Arduino microprocessor, they were able to built a prototype shoe that had the ability to track the wearer’s movements and report back to them via a built in speaker. The data being reported back was in the form of encouragement or rewards from a voice with a personality instead of just keeping score of fuel points. Once we donned the shoe attachments (on top of own own shoes), we were able to run around their playground and shoot hoops, enter a dance club or run through an obstacle course.

Sonos Studio
One of the coolest venues was the Sonos Studio. Sonos makes really cool, if not high end, sound equipment for your home. They decked out a number of buildings with all kinds of different activities and things for you to do. They also had a stage for some great outdoor performances and guests in the Texas sunshine.

The great thing about SXSW is getting exposed to new artists and music. A great surprise was getting to attend Flula Borg’s FLuncheon at Sonos. He did a series of musical bits by adhering to a strict schedule (which was posted all over the venue). My favorite bit was captured by Rebecca on Vine and was the running theme for the rest of the festival…and soon to be a ringtone on my phone. I also Lytro’d Flula which he seemed to enjoy:


One of the buildings had a complete audio/visual experience, the Sonos Playground which features the new Playbar. Rather than try to describe it, just take a look at it:

It used motion sensors to control the animations that were in tune with the beat but also controlled by your movements in the space. It was also air conditioned so it was a great spot to spend some time in.

The big highlight for me (possibly of the entire SXSW) was getting to meet Joel Zimmerman, aka Deadmau5 at Sonos. He and Kat Von D were touring the venue and I was allowed to watch as they went into the ‘build your own speaker’ workshop. I’ve seen him live a couple of times and even recently photographed him but never got to meet him, albeit briefly, as there were lots of others there that wanted to do the same.

Needless to say, the Sonos Studio was a favorite place to hang out and play with cool stuff during SXSW.

SXSW Create
Create was a huge collection of tents set up MakerFaire style that showcased a lot of cool maker/DIY projects and companies. Folks from the Austin Mini MakerFaire were there as well as TechShop showing a lot of cool projects. MakerBot was there showing their latest printers and giving away printed objects via a free vending machine. I got to meet Annilise too…she does many of the awesome video projects for MakerBot so it was great to meet her in person. MakerBot and Shapeways partnered to host a 3D Printing meetup. It was perfectly timed a few hours after my talk so I got to talk with a bunch of people that were at the talk. Shapeways also had some pretty cool samples on hand:

Cool @Shapeways samples #ehteam2013

SparkFun hosted an e-textiles workshop and Texas Instruments were showing their low cost hardware platform. I was happy to see Lytro there with a crazy photo booth and you could borrow your own Lytro for the duration of SXSW to play with during a PhotoCamp they sponsored. It was great to meet Kira and Eric from Lytro after chatting via Twitter previously.

I only wish I had more time to play in there as there was just so much to play with and check out before it shut down to make way for SXSW Music.

Part 2 will focus on the people, music and hockey of my SXSW 2013 experience.

One Comment

  1. Rebecca says:

    It was the year of The Biehler!

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