There I was on a platform, seated in a movie theater-style chair and strapped with a seat belt as I pulled the headset over my head and wrapped it around my face. The Samsung Gear VR device was in place; I fiddled with the focus and wiggled my cheeks to get the best view.
Then the roller coaster ride started. The 4D platform activated, moving and shaking the row of seats, which never left the ground. Me and my fellow VR riders climbed up the Six Flags coaster and soon made the initial drop, our arms raised, our stomachs dropping. It was a convincing, if slightly low-res approximation of reality, enough to provoke a physical reaction, a "Wow!" moment and then, queasily, an immediate desire to return to terra firma.
That's South by Southwest Interactive in a nutshell for me. The annual tech conference, where Samsung's VR roller-coaster sim was housed across the Austin Convention Center at the space normally known as Michelada's Cafe y Cantina is its own kind of reality. It's also a festival that exists largely based on where your head is pointed. So much goes on the festival, from the trade show to the hundreds of panels to parties, large-scale media installations, free food and intimate tech demos that run late into the night that a SXSW experience is highly personal, completely custom.
Big themes do emerge: this year, virtual reality seemed less like a gimmick and more like a mainstream future. The FBI's efforts to thwart Apple encryption was a a fresh, hot topic on many panels, including the historic festival keynote with President Barack Obama on Friday.
The wristband fitness wearables that were so hot last year, including the Apple Watch, were largely absent in the buzz, replaced by talk of sensors embedded in clothing and medical tech innovation that goes way beyond digital pedometers.
I couldn't be everywhere I wanted to be at SXSW Interactive, but I tried to be in as many places as possible over five long days and nights. Here's where my head was pointed for most of it:
VR: the masses are waiting. Samsung made a big push at the festival not only for its new phones, which it was selling in a pop-up store downtown, but for its much-refined Gear VR headset, which it's been giving away for free to phone buyers. The virtual roller coaster installation was one of the most talked-about demos at the fest and the line outside to try the ride never waned through all of Interactive. It also rode, so to speak, news that Six Flags is introducing the use of virtual-reality headsets to actual roller coasters. A Samsung representative assured me the headsets have been tested to make sure they don't fly off mid-ride, but I'm still getting over the idea of having my face covered while my body is hurtling on a real coaster.
It was only one of many places to experience VR that also included a McDonald's virtual Happy Meal Loft (I'm not making that up), lots of well-attended panels about virtual- and augmented reality, and a whole extra track of panels and an "Experience" that started on Wednesday, the day after Interactive concluded. You could try VR on the street (see photo at the top); it seemed like it was everywhere at the festival.
The technology, which may yet face a big backlash when it gets into the hands of those who aren't early adopters, is becoming a plaything for filmmakers, game developers and even retailers who want to wow customers. One VR developer I spoke to said his company is getting requests form Fortune 500 companies to make virtual-reality demos for no other reason than to. With Sony, Facebook and its Oculus Rift, and HTC's Vive (which can be used walking around in a room, though it's tethered to a computer) coming out this year, it feels like the true test of the technology is yet to come. At SXSW, though, it was generating a lot of interest.
Don't bum us out. Of the hundreds of panels available, I only got to attend a handful. And while the Barack Obama keynote was an obviously packed affair, other events I went to meant to deal with tough issues seemed under-attended. An all-day March 12 Online harassment Summit drew about 40-60 people per session and a session about harnessing the power of Latino voters with "Ugly Betty" star América Ferrera filled so small a percentage of its huge panel room that the actress felt compelled to comment on the matter. “It´s not a packed house,” she said to fewer than 100 attendees in a room meant to hold 1,100. “I think it’s interesting and I think it’s important to acknowledge and to say: ‘this is where we’re at with this conversation”
My colleague Lilly Rockwell reported that the line for an "Elephant in the Valley" keynote discussion on gender diversity drew smaller lines than another event involving food celebrity Anthony Bourdain.
The line to see Anthony Bourdain. There was no line for "Elephant in the Valley" a keynote on tech industry sexism. pic.twitter.com/WV5lhBR7rF— Lilly Rockwell (@LillyRockwell) March 13, 2016
My theory: people are coming to South by Southwest not to have tough conversations or to feel bad about the world around them, but to be entertained, inspired and stuffed with tacos and trucks at food trucks around town.
There's nothing wrong with that, necessarily, but the festival's effort to make diversity, for instance, a major topic of discussion did not go over great with attendees in terms of filling seats, it seems like.
Brands got it right this year, at least the ones that matter. For years, SXSW diehards (myself included) have bemoaned the big-budget branding that goes on at the fest. But this year, even McDonald's avoided a messy public misstep and smart brands offered useful services and experiences to people at the fest. This included everything from free food to an adorable St. Bernards delivering precious mobile phone charging to the clever idea of sleeping stations from Casper Mattress, allowing for naps at the sleep-draining event.
The one that probably stood out the most, visually, was the 4th Street and Congress Ave. installation for "Mr. Robot" which included a giant Ferris wheel, a hacker lounge and free, custom-made T-shirts. The USA TV show, moody, artsy and obsessed with how our private information is continually compromised whether we know it or now, was a perfect fit for the Interactive festival a year after winning a SXSW Film Audience Award in 2015.
What was the worst instance of branding I saw at the fest? A startup's tacky use of Trojan Magnum condoms to promote themselves. When these were being passed out at a rooftop party, I could not excuse myself from the conversation quickly enough.
Presidential push. It's very likely SXSW 2016 will be remembered as the year when the Obamas came to down, bookending the Interactive fest with an opening keynote from President Barack Obama and a SXSW Music keynote with First Lady Michelle Obama the day after Interactive concluded.
Every year, doubters (often from far outside of Austin) proclaim that SXSW has jumped the shark or lost its mojo somehow, despite growing solidly year-over-year since 2003.
The booking of the Obamas, the first time a sitting president and first lady have visited the fest, seemed like a minor miracle and a significant step in SXSW's 30th year and SXSW Interactive's 23rd.
Interactive director Hugh Forrest said as much in his introduction of Barack Obama on March 11: "It signifies a timely shift in the evolution of our event, where ideas converge in the hopes of uniting cultures."
While locals complained in advance of calamitous traffic (which, surprisingly, didn't materialize as expected on the morning of the keynote), the fest's welcome of the first couple was warm and seemed like a good omen of SXSW's future, its continuing influence and its growing global cachet for attracting influencers to Austin every March.