And here our SXSW Interactive journey begins: What’s new and different for 2017

In the first of our previews, let us discuss what’s new and different at this year’s conference.

Posted March 3rd, 2017

When your downtown wine bar transforms into a multimedia live-streaming news depot…

When the flight you’re on to Austin is packed with geeks wearing T-shirts bearing startup logos, names missing key vowels…

When the sound of flapping badges and lanyards becomes louder than the grackles…

It’s probably time for South by Southwest Interactive to start.

Not super familiar? The technology conference, which launches SXSW alongside SXSW Film next Friday, March 10, is billed as an ideas and inspiration event, a place for creators and tech-industry pros to hear from leaders in startups, media, philanthropy, sports and — especially this year —politics.

Last year, the Interactive portion attracted 37,660 participants (that count includes badges issued to speakers and media, as well as Gold and Platinum badgeholders with access to the conference), continuing a consecutive growth streak that began in 2006, when SXSW Interactive had a mere 4,733 participants.

Check out our our second SXSW preview (politics, Trump and big names at SXSW),  our third (free stuff to do without a badge), a side-parties database and ongoing coverage of Interactive.

For the 2017 conference, SXSW has made some major changes, doing away with its Gold badge, consolidating pricing for registration across Interactive, Film and Music, and marching toward a kind of convergence that could eventually lead to one badge for all. It is also making changes this year to the way it shares content (specifically live streams) with those who won’t be attending, eliminating free access to SXSW Gaming (which runs March 16-18, after Interactive) and adding a “Tech Under Trump” track of panels to discuss how the president’s policies will affect the tech industry and culture.

In this, the first of a series of short previews over the next few days, we’ll take a look at some other changes happening this year.

What’s new and different

It wouldn’t be a tech conference without some sort of meta-innovation. In past years, SXSW has experimented with location-based beacons and social-networking features built into its guide app. This year, it is introducing attendees to “Abby,” an artificial-intelligence assistant not unlike Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa.

The conference says Abby will answer questions about the schedule and how to get around. It’s available in the iOS and Android “SXSW GO” app.

Austin Humphreys / AMERICAN-STATESMANThomas Babiak and Aidan Kappler play virtual air hockey during the SXSW Gaming Expo at the Palmer Events Center in 2014.

Last year, ride-hailing services Uber and Lyft gave many a ride to and from a crowded downtown. In May, both companies left Austin after a volatile campaign and have not returned. The void has been filled by smaller, less well-known services including Fare, RideAustin and Wingz.

SXSW chose Fasten, one of those companies, as its official ride-hailing partner and is offering attendees a promo code for $5 off a first ride. On a page with transportation options, SXSW also says Mazda will be giving free rides downtown to those who register with Mazda for a wristband.

There will also be festival shuttles, taxis, pedicabs, B-cycles (bike rentals), electric cabs, Car2Go and probably lots of funky alternative transportation options such as karaoke buses and pedal-powered buses, if SXSW history is any indication.

For the first time in its recent history, SXSW is choosing not to live stream its programming, such as keynotes and some featured speakers, to non-attendees. Instead, the conference says, it will put out edited videos of some of its content at some point in the future.

Along with increased access across the different legs of the conference for paid attendees, another major change in conference registration is that SXSW Gaming will no longer be free this year. Instead, the three-day gaming expo will require a paid wristband, which will cost $49 for all three days or $25 per day. Kids 12 and under don’t need a wristband.

Gaming will include an opening party and cosplay contest, demos including the new Nintendo Switch console and an awards show on March 18.

Stick around for more previews through next week and our big coverage kickoff as SXSW starts next Friday, March 10!