South by Southwest is renowned for its star-studded events, parties, concerts and games. But the festival, dubbed SouthBy or SXSW, offers more than just a chance to see a real-life “Westworld” HBO installation or catch a Lorde performance. Austin’s 10-day music, media, fashion, culture and technology event is a lightning rod for some of the world’s leading tastemakers and tech-makers.
The 31st annual festival, which kicks off Friday, will have plenty to offer for and by the fashion, beauty and retail sectors, as well as participating technology companies such as Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, IBM and Microsoft, among others.
In broad strokes, the sessions mostly build on last year’s themes, covering artificial intelligence, virtual and augmented reality, big data, blockchain and other areas. But if the content suggests more of a baby step than a leap forward, think again. Many of these technologies have grown quite a bit in a year’s time, and the conversations are more critical than ever — especially for innovation-minded brands.
Take AI, which is the most dominant theme this year. According to the organization, its looming importance can’t be overestimated.
“Artificial intelligence will be the most important technology of the 21st century, transforming every customer experience, every company and every industry,” wrote SXSW’s Bryn Beausoleil on the organization’s site. “The dawn of the AI era will be even more disruptive than the Internet, forcing brands to rethink how they can create an experience ecosystem for their customers.”
The sentiment echoes Marc Benioff’s comments at Dreamforce last fall, when the Salesforce chairman and chief executive officer referred to the AI era as “the fourth industrial revolution.” SXSW’s programming appears to snap in nicely with his theory.
While Google and Microsoft muse over the challenges in sessions like “Designing the Next Wave of Natural Language and AI,” Guive Balooch, global vice president of L’Oréal’s Technology Incubator, and others will hit it from a different angle in “AI: Transforming Luxury, Fashion and Beauty.” The latter panel will discuss AI’s various applications for fashion and beauty trendspotting, social media, AI stylists, chatbots and customer service.
As iRobot, Harvard University and digital-first companies like TripAdvisor mull over “The Future of Machine Learning: Worth the Hype?,” Steven Wolfe Pereira, Quantcast’s chief marketing and communications officer, will delve into ways brands can develop AI strategies, including how to identify its best uses for customer experiences and insights in “How Will Brands Grow in the AI Era?”
The juxtaposition hammers home a key point: As some brands and retailers try to adapt to new tools, their tech-driven makers are already looking beyond to what’s next. Not that there isn’t more work to do in the present. According to research firm Moody’s Corp., the “transformative potential of artificial intelligence” is still years off. But, the firm acknowledges, there’s been rapid growth and accelerating interest in AI and that interest expands quite a bit, when its subcategories come into play.
Machine learning, computer vision and natural language processing are hot topics from Silicon Valley to Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. For technologists, their complexity can pose development and data challenges. For brands and stores, they are tools that help drive product recommendations, personalization, visual shopping discovery and even voice transactions via Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant using conversational commands, not a foreign lexicon of rigid verbal cues.
The most advanced assistants can learn to recognize voices, follow conversations based on context and use past interactions to inform the user’s experience. “Talk to Me: The Power of Voice” aims to shed light on the power of voice tech and the AI driving them for entertainment purposes. Amazon Video headlines the talk, which includes Comcast and the Hollywood Radio & Television Society.
For all the pragmatic things AI can do — crunch a lot of data, learn things without manual coding at each turn, read images and understand casual language — developers can’t help but push its limits, engineering AI for roles considered human-only territory. “Synthetic Creativity: When AI Takes Over the Arts” and “Will AI Change the Future of Creativity?” will explore whether machines can be creative and develop new works on their own. Think of it as a natural progression of Amazon’s development last year of AI that’s capable of fashion design.
For customer-facing experiences, emerging technologies like augmented reality and virtual reality have potential as brand differentiators — in the near term, AR far more so than VR. The latter is still considered too early by many venture capitalists and analysts to take seriously. Facebook and Samsung — via Oculus — as well as HTC, Sony and others have been making gains, but the awkward, pricey devices remain novelties or gamer fare. They haven’t grabbed enough actual eyeballs or wallets from mainstream customers.
VR companies are still committed to driving the tech, but the optimism might be a little worn around the edges. While Jaunt VR and Oculus ponder “How Does VR Become a Truly Mainstream Technology,” Google and Hulu seem to show more exasperation with “VR Is Hopeless w/out a Path to Green(er) Pasture$.” The tech giants figure it will take premium 360-degree content, and some of that will include brand experiences.
AR is an easier sell. It doesn’t seal people off from surroundings, as AR layers visuals over the real world shown on a screen. The face gear is getting better, too, with fashion-conscious entries like Vuzix in the works. In the meantime, phone-based and in-store AR offer easy access.
Even better, there are clear reasons to use it: Beauty innovators, for example, use a combination of AI and AR to provide virtual makeup and shopping opportunities. Perfect Corp. and Estée Lauder will discuss the subject in their session “The Beauty Retail Experience With AR & AI Technology.” Modiface, Benefit, Snap and Pixability will look at AR beauty for young adult consumers in the “Immersive Tech: GenZ’s Beauty Counter & Mall” panel.
Speaking of Snap and AR, the photo-sharing network will be on hand to show SXSW attendees how to create their own Snapchat Lenses with its Lens Studio program.
Innovation doesn’t just belong to digital-first companies. Brick-and-mortar retailers have a stake as well. Conversations over omnichannel retail’s unified customer experience proposition should appeal to both, with the panels “Future of Physical Retail in a Post-Digital World,” “The Future of the Shopping Center” and “The Reinvention of Stores: Innovate to Survive.”
With tech companies generally saving big announcements for their own press conferences or major trade shows like Mobile World Congress, SXSW Interactive can do what it does best — look at the influence of innovation on entertainment, culture, media and lifestyles. If there was a Venn diagram for fashion or beauty and technology, modern consumer lifestyles would sit in the space where they overlap.
That overlap is growing. At this point, more than half of SXSW’s Style track is about making sense of a rapidly changing landscape.
Last month, the public list of 2018 SXSW Interactive Innovation Awards Finalists featured some unique takes on fashion, accessories and skin tech. The list included Interactive Fitting Room by Stefanka in the “New Economy” category, and Google’s Project Jacquard smart apparel in the futuristic “Sci-Fi No Longer” and the “Wearable Tech” lists. Other finalists include Motiv Ring — a fitness, heart rate and sleep-tracking wearable — and new biosensor tattoos created by researchers at MIT, Harvard and University of California at Davis.
The front edges of fashion, beauty and retail are becoming indistinguishable from the technology ranks, and SXSW seems to reflect that.
A few months ago at the Consumer Electronics Show, WWD caught up with L’Oréal’s Balooch and asked two simple questions: With so many emerging technologies poised to upend the consumer culture, which ones are his group most interested in? And how far away is this retail transformation?
“All of them,” he responded. “And three years or so.…It’s not going to be that far off into the future.”