SXSW 2013: No new Twitter, but marketing and hardware stand out

3D printers were a particular hit at the annual tech show

South by Southwest Interactive is best known as the technology festival that put such social networking mainstays as Twitter and Foursquare on the map. But if there was a "next big thing" at this year's event, finding it would be pretty hard.

Part of the problem is that the Austin, Texas, conference has grown so large, with so much corporate branding and marketing taking place, that small tech companies must resort to extreme measures to get noticed.

Just ask Ebyline, an online marketplace for freelance journalists and publishers. The Sherman Oaks, California-based company set up a beer pong table at its booth in the exhibit hall, complete with free beer and a bartender dressed in black.

Within the first day of the festival's doors opening on March 8, many people were not talking about the latest apps, but rather Nabisco's Oreo cookies. The company was operating a large two-walled installation within the convention center where conference-goers could get their picture taken at a sleekly designed photo booth.

Experts have said that the signal-to-noise ratio at the conference has become frustratingly high for new companies trying to get noticed.

"It has really become a festival, with a great deal of branding from corporations," said Jeremiah Owyang, an analyst with Altimeter, in an email.

Shaquille O'Neal was even contributing to the noise this year. In the run-up to the conference the retired NBA basketball star was calling on startups to send him 15-second elevator pitches via the Tout mobile video app.

"It has become hard to stand out," said Jordan Viator Slabaugh, director of social media at Spredfast, an Austin, Texas-based management and analysis company.

"SXSW is less about coming to launch something and more about coming to learn and connect and create the relationships that will help you navigate the next few steps," she said during a March 11 panel.

"It's about the ideas," agreed Shawn O'Keefe, a SXSW Interactive producer, during the same event.

Social and mobile technologies, for instance, were not a very big focus at the show. Even Facebook's Graph Search, one of the most-talked-about new search technologies in the social networking space now, felt like a peripheral topic at SXSW. Only one formal session was devoted to it, at the University of Texas at Austin, more than 10 blocks north of the convention center where most of SXSW's events took place.

Still, the topic of that panel was telling: Marketers discussed what the social search engine's implications were in helping companies to promote their brands.

If there was a core technology showcased at the show, it was hardware. Smartphones, external hard drives, speakers and audio systems, and digital cameras capable of post-exposure focusing were all hard to miss.

There were also plenty of new design platforms for programmers, content management systems and digital media marketing and analytics companies exhibiting at the show.

On Saturday, Google was even showing off a talking "smart shoe" at its Google Playground across the street from the convention center, though the company stressed that it had no intentions of entering the footwear business.

"A lot of people are calling this the year of hardware," said Meghan Casserly, a Forbes reporter who moderated a March 11 session on SXSW trends. "There is not a lot of social making a big splash."

3D printers specifically were a big focus at SXSW this year, with several sessions devoted to the technology.

Bre Pettis, CEO of 3D printing company MakerBot, delivered the conference's opening keynote address on March 8. During his talk, he introduced the MakerBot Digitizer, which is designed to let people scan preexisting 3D objects to make copies of them. Calling it the "next industrial revolution," Pettis positioned the product as a major expansion of the existing 3D printing industry.

One place at SXSW where people gathered to try out other uses of the technology was the Create tent, a sprawling outdoor tented area where people could poke around with Autodesk's 3D printing software on Apple iPads. MakerBot has a partnership with Autodesk that lets people use an Autodesk app to create a digital model that can then be exported to MakerBot's units for physical printing.

Vendors at the show said MakerBot's printer, and other emerging companies, will help to level the playing field between design companies and DIY artist creators, but because the units currently retail around US$2,000, it may be some time before they become accessible to the average consumer. MakieLab, a 3D toy printing company, was also present at SXSW.

Another big player at SXSW was Leap Motion, which makes motion-controlled devices for gestural computing, so people can interact with their computers by using their hands instead of, say, a keyboard or mouse. The company also had its own outdoor tent at the show offering games and conceptual digital environments that attendees could explore by moving their hands through the air.

At the moment the technology's broader applications are limited, but some say Leap Motion's open platform could prove useful for larger corporations wishing to incorporate it into their own products. Leap Motion is in talks, for instance, with Google in regards to the technology's uses within the developmental Google Glass head-mounted augmented reality system.

If there were mobile apps attracting attention at SXSW, the apps were literally, physically mobile. The car-riding and car-sharing apps Uber and SideCar were offering free rides to SXSW Interactive attendees, though the service proved so popular that actually finding an available car was nearly impossible.

In the end, the marketing bacchanalia notwithstanding, some say the SXSW technology show is still worthwhile, albeit in a very different way than how it used to be. For networking and building buzz, says Donald Chesnut, chief experience officer at tech marketing agency SapientNitro, "it's fantastic."

Zach Miners covers social networking, search and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow Zach on Twitter at @zachminers. Zach's e-mail address is zach_miners@idg.com

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