SXSW 2013: Show report

Trying to sum up a festival like SXSW Interactive is a bit like trying to describe human nature in just a couple of sentences. Unlike primarily hall-based trade shows such as CeBIT and CES, the SXSW host locations are all over downtown Austin, and the event is primarily about panels and talks, although there are a couple of tradeshows too – one for games, one for more general tech services. With so much going on at once, everyone gets a different picture of what the event is about. You can't fail to miss something important, because something else important is always scheduled at the same time.

A definite highlight was the interview of the infamous Kim Dotcom of Megaupload by Charles Graeber of Wired magazine, who is also writing a book about the Megaupload prosecution. Since Kim Dotcom is currently under house arrest in New Zealand, fighting extradition to the US for copyright infringement, he Skyped in. Kim Dotcom had arranged the lighting in his Skype location so all you could see of him was his disembodied head, which was both spooky and hilarious at the same time. If you don't know this story, the Megaupload file sharing service was once responsible for four per cent of all Internet traffic. Just as the 220-employee company was being valued at somewhere between $2.6 and $4.8 billion (£1.7 to £3.2 billion) and getting ready for IPO, New Zealand secret service helicopters swooped, at the behest of the US government, and seized everything – including Dotcom's collection of exotic cars. In a 72-page US indictment, Dotcom faces 55 years in prison. At face value, this seems ludicrously excessive, and Dotcom argues very convincingly that Megaupload was a present to Hollywood for their assistance in the re-election of Barack Obama, a plan B after SOPA crashed and burned.

When you look into Dotcom's past you can see a history of cybercrime, which muddies things somewhat. But there's no doubt this case, the largest of its kind in history, will have significant repercussions for the incumbent copyright establishment – particularly if Dotcom keeps his promise to sue the New Zealand secret service, the US government, and pretty much every US politician or Hollywood executive involved in his prosecution.

If the length of the waiting lines outside are anything to go by, the keynotes are a highlight of SXSW, and they occupy the biggest hall at the Austin Convention Center, with overflow simulcasts available in other halls and buildings around the event.

Bre Pettis of MakerBot kicked things off, discussing how his company's $2,200 (£1,454) device will do for mass production what Photoshop did for photography, bringing personal production from 3D computer models to everyone. But Pettis was also announcing a new Digitizer, which will scan 3D objects so you can replicate them with the MakerBot 3D printer. You will be able to grab existing objects and customise them for yourself, which is yet another important step in the MakerBot revolution. It also raises all sorts of questions about copyright all over again - but this time with physical things, rather than just digital content.

Elon Musk was a slightly more softly spoken keynote guest, but equally significant, if not more so. One of the founders of PayPal, Musk went on to found electric car manufacturer Tesla. However, it was his latest venture, SpaceX, that he was talking about at SXSW. Musk has long wanted mankind to go to Mars, and sees commercial space transportation as the key element to making this financially viable. At the keynote, Musk showed video for the first time of a prototype of SpaceX's Grasshopper Rocket launching and then returning back exactly where it started under thruster power.

The keynote with OUYA's Julie Uhrman proved more controversial. OUYA leapt to fame in 2012 for its phenomenal success on Kickstarter.com. Looking for $950,000 in crowd funding at $99 for each pre-order, OUYA hit $1,000,000 within eight hours and 16 minutes, and eventually raised $8.6 million. However, OUYA's founder Julie Uhrman proved evasive in her interview with The Verge's Josh Topolsky. She wouldn't divulge manufacturing partners or the number of presold consoles, didn't provide a firm general release date for the product, and didn't fight back adequately when Topolsky brought up the persistent rumours that OUYA was actually a scam.

Worst of all, she didn't manage to explain why OUYA wasn't just another games console, albeit a cheap one. The keynote audience commented with their feet, and the huge Hall 5 room was half empty by the end. Uhrman did claim that 7,000 developers were on board, and that the extra money they had was allowing OUYA to create a unique community for this Android-based device. But, with the announcement that OnLive would be available on OUYA, perhaps the message is that console hardware is decreasingly important compared to the content available for it.

Speaking of content, online video, viral clips and memes were a distinct theme at SXSW 2013. Scott Stulen and Katie Hill from the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis explained how they created a Cat Video Festival at the centre's Open Field space that was attended by 10,000 people. In an outdoor Glastonbury-like event, the attendees watched 75 minutes of quirky feline footage, and then a winner was announced, in this case Henri 2, Paw de Deux, about an exceedingly existential cat. As a result of the exposure, the winner Will Braden received 20,000 new Facebook likes and his forthcoming book leapt from 80,000th to 300th on Amazon pre-orders. The Walker Art Center's own website still garners five per cent of its traffic from the Festival.

Cats, of course, are the quintessential Internet meme and the artist who drew the infamous Nyan Cat was on hand, recreating his feline graphic on the bodies of those willing to wait in line. Or you could queue to have your picture taken with the equally infamous Grumpy Cat, or with the real guy known as Scumbag Steve. The team behind Annoying Orange gave a panel at the games tradeshow, although this was more of a chance for the kids in attendance to ask questions than providing any insight into why this irritating fruit has become so popular. But there were many more serious panels hoping to assist the aspiring Web videomaker to success. PhD candidate Alex Leavitt also talked about the phenomenon of Hatsune Miku, voice synthesiser software from Crypton Future Media that has turned into a user-generated virtual pop star that even performs live at her own concerts.

One key trend, unsurprisingly, was the growing interest in social media analytics, and the associated artificial intelligence required to make sense of it all. Particularly interesting was a Twitter visualisation and analysis service from Luminoso, which uses Natural Language Processing (NLP) to provide results that go well beyond Tweets containing just a given search term to include associated meanings. In true SXSW style, we came across this tool via a chance encounter at a BBQ, and only later found the official booth at the tradeshow. The service's ability to provide a comprehensible bigger picture of a Twitter conversation was rather impressive. But it wasn't alone, with a great number of other social media businesses in evidence, including high-end marketing analytics firm Meltwater, and Nestivity, which launched its True Communities. This service brings proper profile pages and moderation to Twitter, turning the service into more of an online community. The focus on social media isn't exactly a surprise, considering the fact that Twitter really came of age at SXSW back in 2007.

Google was very much in evidence, talking in particular about Glass. However, the most engaging speaker we saw came from a much more left-field position. Cindy Gallop, former chair of the US branch of advertising behemoth Bartle Bogle Hegarty, presented her new website MakeLoveNotPorn.tv, which follows on from her infamous TEDTalk and TED Book of the same name. The new site is a paid-for service for sharing real-world sex videos, which is attempting to show what people actually do in the bedroom (and elsewhere) rather than the fake content that is just a Google search away. The subject may not have been everyone's cup of tea, but Gallop's confident and often hilarious presentation style was compelling. And that sums up the huge variety at SXSW, from spaceflight, to cat videos, to porn, with a healthy dollop of social media all the way through. No wonder tens of thousands attend every year.