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SXSW Tech Preview: Snooping, Wearables And More 3-D Printing

Downtown Austin during a rainy South by Southwest Interactive, in 2012.
Nick Mickolas
Downtown Austin during a rainy South by Southwest Interactive, in 2012.

South by Southwest Interactive is the technology-driven part of the annual Austin-based festival for digital, film and music and it starts on Friday. An expected 30,000 people will take part in the interactive and film week that precedes music, and they love it for the spontaneity and the chaos. They also hate it because of the chaos — parties on every corner, marketing handouts at every turn and a sprawling program of panels, screenings and speakers that span at least a dozen city blocks in the heart of Texas.

Even Hugh Forrest, the director of the interactive portion of the fest, says he wishes he had some sort of predictive computing personal assistant to help him make sense of the startup-saturated ideas festival where the lineup includes Edward Snowden, Neil deGrasse Tyson and a repeat appearance by Internet- famous Grumpy Cat.

Before I and my tech reporting counterpart, Laura Sydell, head down to Austin again, I spoke with Forrest for a preview of the sprawling festival that Forrest called a "living, breathing manifestation of the Internet." (That implies all its positives and negatives, of course.) Here is our conversation, compressed for clarity and interestingness:

You've been doing this Interactive fest for a while . Besides exploding in size, how has it changed over the years?

Well, we've moved from a very, very small event that focused on, in 1994, CD-ROMs, to a much bigger event that focuses on lots and lots and lots of different things we think are of interest to the digital creative community. Those areas of focus range from programming or coding, to the next generation of mobile devices to wearable technology to how startups are impacting the world of food, or the world of sports, to technology in medicine.

How is this festival different from any number of major technology conferences, like All Things D, TechCrunch Disrupt or the Consumer Electronics Show?

One of the things that separates South by Southwest from the other events is just that we really put a lot of time and effort into this whole idea of convergence, meaning that in addition to all this tech and creativity stuff, we have interactive. We also have a film conference and festival going on at the same time. And then, towards the tail end, we have this huge music festival and music concert coming in. So, you know, we always like to say that South by Southwest is a great place to meet people in your own field and take your career to the next level via those meetings. But it's also a great place to meet people outside of your field and either learn something from what they're doing to apply to your career or make some kind of new connection that helps you with your career.

Twitter launched at South by Southwest in 2007. What might be the breakout technology this year?

Well, in our best moments, what we're offering at Interactive is a preview of what will be hot in two or three years. No one in 2007 could have possibly envisioned that Twitter would have become as much of a force in our society and our culture as it has been. And I remember, you know, talking to lots of people saying, "Well, you know, this is really cool for this audience at South by Southwest but no one, you know, no one outside this audience will ever use this thing. It's just too complicated. It doesn't make sense." So, again, it's one of those things where you never, or at least in my experiences, you can never quite understand these history-making, groundbreaking things when they are happening. It's only in retrospect that you understand it a little more.

You can never quite understand these history- making, groundbreaking things when they are happening.

Which larger themes do you expect will dominate the conversation this weekend?

There's always numerous different themes happening at any one time. This is a feature, not a flaw. I think one of the big trends at South by Southwest 2014 is this burgeoning field of wearable technology, whether that's kind of the next generation of something like Google Glass or an improvement on that or this next generation of smartwatches that have much more functionality or whether it's something a little bit more on the horizon which is clothing we wear that has sensors in it that automatically notifies my doctor if I'm having some kind of health problem.

I think that's also somewhat connected to this whole concept of the Internet of Things, which has been talked about a lot at South by Southwest over the last few years and beginning to get a lot of headway in the mainstream culture in this idea of things can communicate with each other as opposed to simply humans communicating with each other.

Last year, 2013, was a big year for 3-D printing at South by Southwest. I think that will continue. And it is also reflective that we're doing more and more hardware stuff, more and more hardware type stuff at South by Southwest. For the last 7 or 8 years, our focus has really been on social media. And that social media has grown in popularity as it has become more usable to the general public. I think we're seeing the same general trend on the hardware side, that 3-D printing, still pretty complicated but slowly getting easier and easier for the mainstream to use. And the easier it gets to use, the more likely it will pop in that bigger audience.

I think another big theme, which maybe is not so happy and cheery is surveillance and online privacy. This is certainly a huge issue to the South by Southwest crowd. You know, social media has been responsible for a lot of the growth in this ecosystem, and a lot of the growth of the economy over the last 5 or 6 years. We are certainly realizing more and more some of the downsides of that growth or downsides of that social media. It's a discussion that this community wants to engage in and will be front and center at South by Southwest this year.

You've announced Edward Snowden will make an appearance by video-conference. How else will government surveillance and the issues surrounding technology and privacy be emphasized this year?

Julian Assange has a tremendous amount of buzz. We've also got a session with Barton Gellman and Cory Doctorow on Monday, March 10. They'll be talking about online privacy and surveillance as well. Glenn Greenwald is doing a session on Monday afternoon. That will be remote. He'll be calling in from Brazil. So again, there's a lot of programming that's focused on this idea. And I've mentioned some of the bigger names here. There will be workshops on privacy and surveillance. This will be discussed in some of the smaller panel rooms as well. Again, it's a big focus at the 2014 event, as well it should be. I mean, it's something that impacts this crowd very significantly, and it's something that I think impacts all of us, given how much social is just a part of our lives. It's essentially woven into everything we do.

Just how big is SXSW Interactive?

We'll be pretty close to what we did last year, which was about 30,000 people total. Last year was our biggest year. This year, probably not as much growth as we did in the past. We're trying to gently push some of that growth off to some of our other events and we've also kind of hit some hard limits in terms of the capacity of Austin hotels and lodging.

How have you changed the festival this year, now that you have 20 years of experience?

Quite a few changes. We've got a lot more free stuff this year that will bring a lot more of the community involved. We've got programming a little bit earlier on our first day on Friday. We've got more startup stuff this year than ever before. Those startups continue to be a huge part of South by Southwest. On the other hand, we've also got more social-good stuff this year than ever before. So, you know, lots of different things and lots of different areas of coverage, and we, again, tend to think this as a feature and not a flaw. South by Southwest is a living, breathing manifestation of the Internet where you can get all kinds of different inputs and all kinds of different ways of information and put them all together and somehow come out slightly better at the end of the whole experience.

NPR Business Desk intern Tanya Basu contributed to this post.

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Elise Hu is a host-at-large based at NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Previously, she explored the future with her video series, Future You with Elise Hu, and served as the founding bureau chief and International Correspondent for NPR's Seoul office. She was based in Seoul for nearly four years, responsible for the network's coverage of both Koreas and Japan, and filed from a dozen countries across Asia.