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sxsw-interactiveLast week’s South by Southwest (SXSW) Festival once again brought thousands down to Austin, Texas for the week-long event featuring music acts, film releases, marketers with plenty of money to spend, and press-seeking startups. Started as a sister-event to New York City’s New Music Seminar festival in 1986, SXSW quickly took off as a hot destination for emerging music acts, helping launch the careers of John Mayer, Franz Ferdinand, The White Stripes and even ’90s boy band Hanson.

While SXSW remains a mecca for artists looking to make it big, the festival has grown to include SXSW Interactive, touted as an “incubator of cutting-edge technologies and digital creativity.” Early years for the Interactive festival included panels like “So You Want to Make a CD-Rom” and its reputation solidified with the success of Twitter and Foursquare, which quickly gained traction among festival-goers as a way to keep up with news and check into specific event locations. But while SXSW has had a select number of tech-related successes, should it be added to the list of major tech destination events like the yearly Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas or Barcelona’s Mobile World Congress?

Startups looking for press and funding flock to Austin for the festival’s Startup Village, dedicated to entrepreneurial/tech ventures. Looking to capture the success of now-brand names like Twitter, startups spend thousands each year to send down entire teams of employees and get their names and ideas in front of venture capitalists, fellow entrepreneurs, technology professionals, and even big brands. But is SXSW Interactive a breeding ground for technical innovation among scrappy startups or more a playground for digital-savvy marketers looking to increase exposure for their already-popular brands?

Checking media highlights of SXSW, what popped up most frequently were the big brands that poured marketing dollars into the event:

  • Oreo let attendees customize 3D-printed cookies
  • Mashable sponsored an opportunity for a photo op with internet-famous Grumpy Cat
  • Shell-owned Penzoil provided a life-sized Mario Kart track using RFID technology to emulate the game’s signature characters and items

SXSW Interactive organizers insist that the event’s focus on convergence separates them from other tech conferences, so it makes sense that highlights would blend brand awareness and technology, but there were also still smaller or less well-known companies bringing new technologies to the event.

  • Healthcare tech had a major presence with startups include Pristine, which is building telehealth products for Google Glass, and 23andMe announced their plans for the future.
  • Talk of Bitcoin was everywhere, with a Bitcoin ATM even allowing attendees to directly purchase bitcoins with cash (at a ridiculous rate of around 0.00149158 bitcoin/dollar)
  • Award winning startups included Skully Helmets, a fully intergrated heads-up helmet that provides current data, navigation, even a 180 degree rear view to a wearer, and Sensible Baby, which alerts parents to their newborn’s activity levels and room temperature.
  • This year’s SXSW also took a keen eye to privacy and security issues with remote talks from Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and Edward Snowden who asked those in tech community through a highly secure streaming video service to create new tools to provide more user-friendly and data-secure communication tools for consumers.

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