Convergence makes SXSW ‘all things to all people’

By Steve Winter and Kenny Fried, Special WTOP correspondents

WASHINGTON — Most people think of South by Southwest as one colossal party.

That’s really not true … it’s actually a series of many colossal parties. Yet while the social events serve to bring people together in a carefree and relaxed way, those food and alcohol-infused gatherings are really only the glue that connects the thousands of individuals who travel to Austin for 10 days in March to experience the latest innovations of the 21st century.

While formally billed by organizers as the SXSW Music, Film and Interactive Conference and Festivals, the event’s three main legacy elements are really only the tip of the iceberg.

“South by Southwest is now all about convergence,” said Rebecca Feferman, Head of SXsports & Convergence Teams.

“The success of SXSW is the element of all these different industries colliding in one place. The content is so geared toward determining and highlighting what’s next — technology, sports, innovation — and that creates an electricity and energy for all who show up. Our attendees are invested in both creating and seeking out meaningful content. Everyone who comes has a predetermined interest in what has happened at SXSW in the past and what is happening. Combine that with Austin, beer and BBQ, and it makes things combust in an exciting way that has no limitations.”

Nowhere is that more evident than the fact that — aside from the festival’s three core industries — SXSW now features more than 40 different tracks, spanning everything from sports, comedy and gaming to food, education, health care and much more.

“The sports programming is of particular interest to me,” said Alex Curry of Austin, a graduate student focusing on communication in sports.

“The sessions I’m attending are talking about sports as being part of something larger, the broader sense of what’s happening off the playing field. Sports isn’t just about the stats or the home runs or the hits anymore; it’s about gambling, domestic violence and other issues. Essentially, we’re expanding the conversation and bringing it to a different group of people. That’s why I’m here.”

According to Feferman, sports programming is well on its way toward bigger and better things.

“We’ve long had sports programming in our interactive and film festivals but this is the first time we packaged, expanded and branded it, so now it has grown to a three-day programming track with 51 separate panels,” Feferman says.

With NBA Commissioner Adam Silver serving as a keynote speaker, companies such as NBC Sports, Octagon and Gatorade as major sponsors and panel discussions featuring such prominent names as New York Giants’ receiver Odell Beckham Jr., UFC star Ronda Rousey, FOX Sports’ Katie Nolan, ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, LPGA star Anna Rawson and others, SXSW Sports covered issues ranging from superhuman athlete enhancement, concussions and mental health in sports to content creation and the future of sports television.

SXSW Education has also emerged as a major focus area. Opening four days before the official start to the festival, SXSWedu hosted a diverse community of stakeholders from a variety of educational backgrounds providing registrants with access to sessions, interactive workshops, hands-on learning experiences, film screenings, early stage startups and a host of networking opportunities.

By providing a platform for collaboration, SXSWedu promote creativity and social change within the ever-evolving works of education.

Two Washington, D.C.-based companies —, which connects global applications with college students, and admissions experts to receive insights and actionable feedback at an affordable price and Words Liive, a literacy augmentation company built around a teaching process that isolates grammar structures in popular culture to teach reading and writing skills — were finalists in the SXSWedu Launch Competition which honored startups with some of the most innovative ideas in education.

The key to it all, as Feferman said, is SXSW Convergence, which means that selected programs are available to individuals possessing different types of badges, allowing show attendees the opportunity to mingle directly with registrants from other areas of expertise, providing bonus learning and networking unique to SXSW while also focusing on elements of personal interest to each individual.

For Sara Smolley, business development specialist for Buffalo-based VoiceItt, a visit to the SXSW Health and Med Tech Expo at the JW Marriott was precisely what the doctor ordered.

“Our medical health startup is developing software that translates the speech of people with disabilities — ALS, MS, Parkinson’s, Autism and Cerebral Palsy — so we’re interested in everything else going on in innovation and tech, and really the intersections of technology and medicine,” she says.

One of the best examples of convergence was a company called Cubicle Ninja, which exhibited first at the Med-Tech Expo before switching over to the Trade Show at the Main Exhibit Hall.

“Our product delivers guided meditation virtual reality through a smartphone that slides and locks into a head-mounted VR display,” said CEO Josh Farkas.

“We do see medical potential for us so we’re here exploring the concept of potentially using in the hospital care setting.”

But as a product with both medical and nonmedical applications, it’s an idea which makes absolute common sense.

Perhaps the true beauty of the SXSW Convergence track is that emerging genres in Austin are beginning to achieve notoriety and participation at levels that directly correspond to their levels of appeal to festival attendees.

Gaming and comedy, for example, both attract a significant audience, but not an enormous ones, while sports, medicine and education all appear to be tracks that can be best defined as “on the rise.”

This much however, is certain. Today, 30 years after its founding as a pure music festival, and 23 years after the addition of film and interactive, it’s now clearly safe to say that South by Southwest is truly is all things to all people.

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