SXSW 2019: The Machine is Your Friend

Whereas the last two editions of the South by Southwest (SXSW) Festival had seemed to have unfolded in a certain climate of anxiety due to the US political context or the control exerted by computers over our societies, this year’s edition was instead characterized by a certain level of openness and optimism with respect to technological upheavals.

Given the sheer scale of the SXSW—to which 432,500 people representing a total of 102 countries participate over ten or so days—it is obviously impossible to see everything [there is to see]. After all, last year, more than 2,100 conferences of all sorts were presented in addition to the artistic facilities, a multitude of festivities, book-signing sessions, technology test beds and so forth. In short, there are probably as many SXSWs as there are attendees seeing how many content combinations are possible.

Photo credit: Aaron Rogosin

That being said, for better or worse, attendees always manage to get a general feeling through their discussions in the endless line-ups and at the packed coffee stands or yet still through the conferences’ whimsical titles. This year, we felt the need to shape our idea of what the future holds. For example, in concrete terms, what is the value that the blockchain can instill to the screen-based industry? As for podcasts, so often talked about for some time now, where do they fit in the content value chain? Finally, once the enthusiasm has passed what role will artificial intelligence play in creation? Is it a tool that Hollywood could actually use?

These questions were often raised in one form or another during the festival, which was resolutely focused in 2019 on finding solutions. So here are three topics which stood out this year in our opinion.

The blockchain

The blockchain did not go unnoticed this year and it was discussed loosely and largely in terms of health, democracy, social justice, marihuana, etc. Of course, it’s the cultural production angle that caught our attention. The program proposed conference titles such as Blockchain Transforming Film and Music, How the Future of VR & AR Will Be Unleashed Through Blockchain and The Future of AI in Blockchain. We were fortunate enough (because the room was packed) to be able to attend the conference titled Blockchain is Shaping the Future of Content. Ideo’s Tara Tan interviewed Ryan Andal, president and cofounder of Secret Location, an immersive content studio based in both Toronto and Los Angeles.

Andal went on to speak of the well-documented challenge of making virtual reality content profitable. Seeing as most of the distribution networks are centralized, blockchain technologies make it possible to eliminate all intermediaries and bring content creators closer to their respective audiences. According to him, when it comes to distribution, often only a part of the problem is examined. Indeed, often only the distribution of the final product to the client is at stake. However, when content is costly to produce, as is the case with virtual reality content, that also implies assigning a part of one’s rights along the way to finance one’s content. It was therefore necessary to find a way to track the distribution of rights throughout this value chain, i.e., from ideation to distribution to the consumer.

That is what Secret Location has developed, although the service is still in its infancy (it was launched in spring 2018). The Vusr Spark platform, which is dedicated to the management of virtual reality rights, was built using blockchain technology. Although this type of solution is not yet widespread in the industry, the enthusiasm expressed for the various blockchain conferences reflects an interest to adapt practices to technologies based on traditional distribution models that do not always take that reality into account.

Audio’s comeback

Audio has always been neglected on the web, where video and image rule on most platforms. However, it would appear that audio has not yet said its last word. During a conference attended by several of podcast heavyweights such as Gimlet, Spotify, Anchor and Cheddar, it was pointed out that consumers spend as much time on audio as they do on video. Nevertheless, the video market is reported to be worth one trillion dollars, whereas audio and music combined would be worth only one tenth of that sum. These companies intend to balance out the situation.

For 2019, the SXSW’s programming put more emphasis on audio and proposed a plethora of conferences and interactive audio experiences including Sound Trip: An Immersive Experience, Broadcast for Podcasts: Transitioning Audio to Visual Storytelling, Convergence Keynote: The Second Golden Age of Audio – Podcasting and Podcasting & Hollywood. The idea of transitioning from audio to video proved to be very popular. In several conferences, podcasting was considered as one of the potential building blocks of a new form of intellectual property, in that it makes it possible to test an idea and an audience at a low cost and then transition to video.

Photo credit: Dylan Johnson

During a presentation titled How Technology is Impacting Filmed Entertainment, Sanjay Sharma, founder and CEO of Marginal MediaWorks, explained that we live in an age in which history has taken over all of its rights—regardless of format, duration or platform. He spoke of one case involving a video game of which he owns the intellectual property and that he is developing into a podcast, the goal being to eventually produce a television series. He prefers this approach to that of developing a scenario and then waiting months or even years before arriving at a final product. Podcasting enables him to develop content more economically and to easily measure its effectiveness with an audience. If something does not work or if a given character stands out among the others, he gets the answer quickly.

Human–computer co-creation in the spotlight

Several conferences dealt with actually applying artificial intelligence to human creativity. Sony’s pavilion focused its entire program on the following question: “Will technology enhance human creativity?” Jimmy Hendrix’s face often accompanied the question to emphasize the fact that human genius needs a tool (a guitar in this case) to express itself, thereby insinuating that computers can also play the role of revealing human talent.

During one of Sony’s conferences titled Can AI Re-Envision Human Creativity?, we learned that Garry Kasparov, the last human being to have beaten a computer at chess, believes that computers will enable mankind to advance the frontiers of its own creativity, especially by forcing it to resort to its fundamental creative impulses. He gave the example of the job structure in the United States and specified that creativity was just about absent from most people’s daily lives. “We taught generations of people to act as machines and now we’re surprised that machines accomplish these same tasks better than we do.” He considers that the situation opens up a great opportunity to reappropriate human creativity.

Also in Sony’s pavilion, it was possible to live a variety of experiences that used computers for creative expression purposes. That was the case of Flow Machines, which used artificial intelligence to co-create music. The computer suggests melodies that engineers can then modify as they please. Once a melodic base has been composed from some of the computer’s suggestions, one of the engineers can pick up a guitar and have the piece evolve.

Whether at the Sony pavilion or as part of other conferences on the theme of artificial intelligence such as AI and the Future of Storytelling, AI for Storytellers: The Good, the Bad and the UglyThe Future of Technology-Enabled Entertainment and Creativity: Perspectives from Neurosciences and AI, the idea of augmented human creation was very present even though it remains to be applied in practice by the industry.

Catherine Mathys
Catherine Mathys has worked in the audiovisual production and media sector for almost 20 years. Chronicler, reporter and animator, she specialized over the last decade in the analysis of technological and media transformations. She holds a bachelor's degree in sociology and a master's degree in communication, and she particularly appreciates our relationship with technology and its impact on our daily lives.
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