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The Machines of SXSW Future

sxsw-600x379We’ve been urged (well, that’s maybe overstating a little) to follow up on the pre-SXSW evaluations post. In it, Alan opined that the three “tracks” most likely to get most industry attention were Wearables, IoT and VR/AR.

We’d say he pretty much nailed it. Well, except that (in our view at least) Wearables was usurped by discussions on AI and Machine Learning.

Not to say there wasn’t excitement about some of the world’s best start-up wearable companies demonstrating their products––particularly cool Korean firms like skin care and health device WAY and posture-adjusting wristband ZIKTO––but we were not as blown away as we’d hoped. Anyway, back to self-learning machines …

Artificial Intelligence
With the Google DeepMind AlphaGo triumphs against Lee Sedol fresh in our minds, we heard from the brightest and best in AI such as Siri co-founder Adam Cheyer and Allen Institute’s Oren Etzioni in a panel called “Can AI Systems Really Think?” We also saw Professor Pedro Domingos talk about “The Secrets of Machine Learning Revealed” which outlined the five tribes of AI scientists and their schools of thought.

Many others, including Dag Kittlaus (Cheyer’s co-founder in new firm VIV) and Pinterest’s Head of Commerce Michael Yamartino, discussed all the forms and factors in AI’s implementation in the current and future worlds of medicine, education, environment and, of course, marketing.

They all took it upon themselves to reassure us that the singularity is (most likely) still hundreds of years away. But if you simplify it down (and we had to so it all made sense) what they were describing was tremendously exciting. And this area of thinking is a very rich and fertile space for data-driven marketers.

You’ve probably seen IBM’s new branded point of view advertising featuring Watson. And you also probably know marketers are using Watson to (among other things) build predictive models for buyer trends and to build optimal customer journeys. A sandbox for the industry’s best analytic and strategy minds to test hypotheses and determine the most efficient sequence of touch points to create optimal returns––Watson consumes limitless amounts of unstructured data as it goes about its work.

And yet its still “just” a tool … a very, very artificially clever tool, but nonetheless completely controlled by us.

In the world of shopper experience, AI is helping to predict customer preference before they can even recognize their desire to purchase. Ecommerce sites like Zappos.com and parent company Amazon have created an art out of the science of personalized recommendations. AI can create the same level of customer service as a local storeowner who’s had the same customer for years … all in the blink of a cursor.

So learning machines are definitely going to feature in future SXSW Festivals.
But what about other machines and devices connected to each other, and us, via the Internet? We are referring of course to the IoT track…

The Internet of Things
Well, we heard many hours worth of discussion about connected cars, cities, homes and more. From demonstrations on the trade show floor to panels around Downtown venues, it was hard to avoid someone talking about the Internet of Things. We were keen to learn about people’s opinions on an ethical code for makers and coders building these connected experiences (from AppDynamic’s Prathap Dendi) and how connected devices should respect our privacy (panel including Intel and Microsoft representatives).

And we had many divergent conversations about IoT … a sure sign it’s already an embedded and popular topic. “Cognition Clash in the Internet of Things”; “Internet of Banking Things”; “IoT: A Thousand Touchpoints of Marketing?”; and more.

So. the Internet of Things will continue to spread into more niche conversations over the next few years which leaves us with our final forecast––VR/AR ubiquity.

Virtual Reality
And so it came to pass … VR was EVERYWHERE! The trade show stands were full of Gear VR and Google Cardboard devices encouraging everyone and anyone to be impressed … Sennheiser demonstrated Ambeo VR headphones that let wearers experience sound in 3D. SAP promoted their Digital Boardroom, allowing users to enter a shared space and review documents using VR devices. And of course many panels and sessions took the trend to heart as they vied for attendee attention.

With more mainstream devices making it possible for more and more people to access VR content, the question for marketers becomes: What stories make the most sense?

The VR filmmakers at the panel discussion “New Advertising Models for Virtual Reality” sought to answer just that. All agreed that no marketer wants their advertising associated with a VR injury––so creating TVC style spots to be consumed instantly is unlikely to become standard practice.

Rather, the best brand-in-VR experiences are when audiences are transported to an experience that fits your brand values. Perhaps even your product, it it’s relevant in the case of the film. If all else fails, brands that sponsor a VR film can grab some of the attention—even if they’re not the stars of the show. But curating and presenting content associated with your brand personality is at least one way of capitalising.

Across the various VR sessions, many agreed the New York Times had scored the biggest hit so far with its Google Cardboard collaboration, “The Displaced”—and according to the Times’ SXSW session, they’re planning to ramp up VR editorial features to around twice monthly.

The Times’ VR story played out so well because they solved two key problems: 1) They literally put Google Cardboard kits in the hands of their readers by delivering sets with the Sunday paper; and 2) with “The Displaced,” they told a story that resonates with their brand’s core value of providing exceptional journalism to its readers. By adding a VR component to this particular story, they transported readers into the lives of three refugee children displaced by war and persecution. An essential story brought to life in a format that delivers more than important information: It creates empathy.

The best VR, everyone agreed, isn’t what you see, but how it makes you feel. And, as the technology becomes more and more commonplace, the machines of the future that let you feel a connection on a more visceral level, will win the day.

 

Alan Kittle is Global Executive Creative Director at Harte Hanks, and Andrew Womack is Group Creative Director at Harte Hanks.

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