by Ted Ripple, Experience Designer at North Kingdom LA
This year, I had my first go at SXSW with measured excitement. I knew an eventful weekend was in store and that caffeine had its diminishing returns. Amidst the craziness, I was fortunate enough to attend several talks, hosted by tech luminaries of all stripes. I’ve distilled this journey down to four quotes that resonated with me, an experience designer. So, prepare for brands to activate you. Avoid the long queues. And make sure you have all four scooter apps on your phone — hint: they’re not clap activated.
Welcome to South By North Kingdom.
1. “Technology is disappearing”
No, it isn’t going away; it’s only becoming more pervasive. Some of it’s going back to analog and yet, it’s all starting to feel more natural. During the session Inside Big Tech’s New ‘Human’ Aesthetic, I expected to hear about tech’s desire to seem authentic, more personable. It’s true, companies are trying to look less conventionally “tech.” Take the evolution of Uber’s brand identity, for example. Rather, it had to do with the rise of diversity in the industry and how that’s evolving the conversation and the products that impact our wellbeing.
Carly Leahy, who founded Modern Fertility from a communal Slack channel, asserted that we only first discuss women’s fertility in the context of infertility. And that’s why she started her company, rooted in the mantra “we trust women.” It’s an example of how modern services use technology with a humanist bent. As we continue down the road of merging man with machine, it’s this urgency for empathy that enables meaningful progress.
2. “We are radiating information”
Companies are becoming increasingly privy to the trail of information we leave behind us. Consider it the infrared spectrum of human details. They’re pushing the boundaries beyond our online activity and current location (we see you, Foursquare), looking to leverage our most personal biorhythmic data. During one talk, a product trailer aired for a security wristband. It envisioned a world where the only credential you needed was your unique heartbeat. From TSA check to unlocking your hotel room, simply circulate blood and swipe your wristband.
These developments allow the content we experience to become more personalized. At a tech trade show event, Accenture demoed a Dumbo movie poster that changed based on your facial expression. Frown, and Dumbo would algorithmically morph to compliment your blues.
Interactive experiences are beginning to harness our bodily information in an effort to better adapt and appeal. As new metrics of human nature become decrypted, how do we designers remain stewards of privacy? What concerns me most is that this information is our very nature and, unlike our Facebook posts, not something we control.
3. “Reality is the medium”
“Does the uncanny valley end?” one panelist inquired, during The Next Uncanny Valley: Interaction in XR . While the generative adversarial network powering this person doesn’t exist suggests how well tech can blur the line between what’s real and what’s not, mixed reality is still in its infancy. Some experiences today strive for total immersion, attempting to mimic the sensory details of the real world. Others rely on more inventive, conceptual solves to make their point.
Imagine putting on a headset that takes you to an ordinary room. Every time you blink, however, five years go by. This scenario, conceived by Lucas Rizzotto, the AR/VR pioneer responsible for Where Thoughts Go, illustrates the storytelling opportunities this medium can create. He describes this interaction as a “deceptive cadence.” Its purpose is to shake us of our preconceived notions and he contends that these experiments provide a new canvas for fostering our emotional growth. As our digital avatars become more prevalent, the forms we take will inform our sense of self.
But this optimism was met with concern by others in the field. How do we address trauma when this medium starts to become too real? Now, imagine an AR murder in your living room — actually, please don’t. We are making tremendous strides with this space, like training firefighters with digital heat or helping patients overcome arachnophobia. But, as the common theme goes, with great power comes great responsibility.
4. “We should be excited about automation”
These provocative words were uttered by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez during one of the most anticipated talks of the festival. This sentiment was meant to alarm. Imagine us cheering on the computers as they terminate our jobs. We already have AI that can pass the Turing Test, so how will we put food on the table once the classifieds are written in 1’s and 0’s? On the other hand, won’t us humans then have more time for artistic and scientific pursuits?
AOC makes the point that automation itself is not the problem. She believes it’s rise is certain — and she is very right. Instead, she argues that we must recalculate how we value people and work. Automation should play in our favor, but without things like financial security, we may no longer fit into the equation.
Other big name Democrats demonstrated their tech literacy through compelling speeches, but I spotlight AOC for promoting a topic that has been seldom touched on in politics. She makes clear that we must embrace AI with caution and creativity, melding it with the rhetoric of the Green New Deal. That governance needs to get ahead of the shifts in technology before they become “tech”-tonic.