Notes from SxSW 2016

Mirrors in Austin
Checking out the 3M stand at SxSW16

A late SxSW update as I was straight into action with Smart Design (who are awesome, btw) even before I landed back in London.

As usual, the breadth and density of talks was overwhelming and I’ve only managed to cover a few. But many of the themes seemed to overlap, so I tried to get to as many useful talks as possible with the hope that they would be good ‘representative samples’ of the wider discussion, although there’s a definite skew towards urban and mobility issues. Some extended notes below:

Minimalism in product design was discussed not only as an aesthetic ambition, but as a means of allowing technology to get out of the way. In many ways, this removes the divide we’ve perceived between ‘digital’ and ‘physical’. Digital becomes a seamless enabler, rather than a destination in itself. When technology has moved out of little rectangles, how will we start to design for the end of your relationship with the product – what does it do when it’s not your centre of attention?

Many of the talks explored their futures in terms of the intrinsic links evolving between technologies and wider systems. Apps no longer need to work in isolation of each other, and self-aware cars and streets will soon both contribute to a more efficient, environmentally friendly urban realm.

Cities like London are already working with car manufacturers to explore how the public realm can be adapted to enable mobility technologies to thrive. Street lights, kiosks and parking spaces will all have a role to play in making streets more liveable in future.

People think that self-driving cars are much closer than they think. However, one speaker envisioned that cars would still allow manual driving, either for off-mapped-road situations, or simply for the pleasure of driving.

Will self-driving cars enable a sharing or on-demand ecosystem to take hold? The way we think about it today, without ownership you have no brand. The challenge for automakers will be to effectively pivot into a new notion of ‘meaning-making’ for their users.

Mercedes had explored the future car as a tool to connect drivers with each other and the spaces around them, almost a membrane to the urban realm. Their head-up display explorations focused on developing an ‘informed trust’ between the user and the machine, by displaying ‘what the car sees’.

Whilst driverless cars would allow people to be more productive, Mercedes weren’t sure it would make anyone less prone to car-sickness. Part of their prototype brought the idea of motion into the fabric of the car, by representing the cars motion and trajectory along the side-panels. The idea was that whilst someone maybe engrossed in a newspaper or tablet, their peripheral vision would still pick up on the ‘natural’ movement of their surroundings, reducing the likelihood of motion sickness.

The range of sensors could also give back information to other vehicles or people around the car, by using external displays on either end of the car to help people ‘see through’ the vehicle in some way. The researchers had also toyed with the idea of blocking out display advertising.

Another question was whether the movement towards an adaptable platform chassis architecture, where cars become a shell on top of a set of wheels and batteries, will enable more personalisation of vehicles by the end user. A range of 3d printing and VR tools could be used to rapidly develop new, unique designs that can then be built and delivered on demand.

There was a lot of debate around privacy and the role of big data, with one presenter remarking that big data was less like the new gold, and more like the new oil, with a whole range of side-effects that we’re only just beginning to explore.

Posted in Clueless Punditry, Connected Car, Ideas, SXSW, Travel
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