Hot Gadgets, Cool Tech: SXSW Interactive 2014 Wrap-Up

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The South by Southwest (SXSW) festival—an Austin, Texas tradition since 1987—draws big crowds every year with its unique blend of music, film, stars big and small, and technological innovation. The 2014 show was no exception, combining celebrity spectacle with high-profile speakers and high-tech gadgetry.

SXSW has a well-earned reputation as an incubator of new musical talent, but the festival that launched Twitter (or at least helped it become a household name) has also become something of a mecca for technophiles as well. Having branched out from music and into film and tech, SXSW generates at least as much buzz for the applications and gadgets it brings to light as it does the musical headliners and fresh-faced bands who fill it with music each year.

The SXSW Interactive show (which ran from March 7th through the 11th) didn’t have a headline-dominating breakthrough app in the vein of Twitter (in fact, some developers have begun to shy away from launching at the show), but it still had plenty to offer tech-savvy attendees.

A Pulpit for Privacy

The slate of speakers at SXSW Interactive was chockablock with industry experts, pundits, and public figures. But two speakers in particular—Edward Snowden and Julian Assange—stood out, both in media and message.

Snowden, the National Security Agency (NSA) contractor who rose to infamy after absconding with roughly 1.7 million classified documents and leaking details of the U.S. government’s extremely controversial PRISM program to the British press, appeared via webcast from Russia, where he successfully sought asylum in 2013. Wikileaks founder Assange—who, like Snowden, is wanted by the United States government for revealing classified information—also appeared via remote connection, giving his presentation from the Ecuadorean embassy in London.

Both men gave talks focused on the importance of privacy, and its rapid disappearance in a world that’s always online (and, according to Assange, under constant surveillance by authorities). For his part, Snowden accused the NSA of “setting fire to the future of the Internet” by eroding privacy and information protections in the name of national security:

The warnings of these exiles might come from afar, but they definitely touched a nerve in a society exploring the meaning of, and necessity for, electronic privacy. Whether you regard them as heroes or rogues, the issues raised by these whistleblowers have a very real impact on current technology, and forms privacy may take—if any—in the decades to come.

Gadgets Gain Ground

In years past, the gee-whiz factor at SXSW Interactive has come from the virtual realm, in the form of social apps like Twitter and check-in giant Foursquare. Plenty of apps used SXSW 2014 as a springboard —including buzz-generating, privacy-focused chat application from Omlet—but some of the most talked-about items came in the form of gadgets and gizmos. Three of the most intriguing include:

Nothin’ Says Lovin’ Like Somethin’ From…the Printer?
Everyone loves a good candy bar, but sometimes you just don’t feel like going all the way down to the corner store to get one. Luckily, 3D Systems and Hershey have the problem solved, thanks to a device that lets you print your own candy at home. The device is still in beta, but its creators are clearly betting on the willingness of the public to craft their own confections in the comfort of their own home.

SXSW attendees who weren’t in the mood for candy could swing by the Oreo booth, where a special printer was churning out custom sandwich cookies based on Twitter trends.

We’re forced to ask: could a Star Trek-style replicator be far away?

One Step Closer to the Holodeck

While we’re on the subject of Star Trek, mankind may have taken an enormous stride toward a truly immersive, holodeck-style virtual world with the Oculus Rift. The brainchild of virtual-reality enthusiast Palmer Luckey, this head-mounted VR rig let SXSW visitors enter a simulated adventure environment based on HBO’s wildly popular fantasy series Game of Thrones (the company is partnering with Oculus Rift).

After donning the goggles and having their input calibrated by an assistant, festival goers were immersed in an interactive environment that mimicks a trip up the great wall outside Castle Black. Extra touches, such as a fan that provided a sensation of blowing wind, helped enhance the sensation of scaling a forbidding wall of ice in a far-off land of fantasy.

Right now, the Oculus Rift experience is limited to the traveling exhibit, but with the company having sold more than 60,000 developer kits, it’s likely games and other applications will soon offer integration with this next-gen virtual reality tool.

Don’t Tase Me, Drone!

Autonomous micro-aircraft, commonly referred to as drones, have become increasingly visible in the public eye thanks to their use in a variety of military, academic, and commercial applications. But at SXSW, a new type of drone—the CUPID, or “Chaotic Unmanned Personal Intercept Drone”—made a rather…shocking…debut.

This drone is anything but a toy. Held aloft by six whirling blades, the CUPID monitors its environment and scans for intruders. If one is detected, it sends a video feed of the potential troublemaker to its owner’s phone—and if they’re an intruder, you can push a single button to put the CUPID into intercept mode. The intruder gets one chance to leave, but if they keep coming, they get a two-pronged, 80,000-volt surprise:

SXSW visitors were shown a fully-functional demo model of the CUPID that left little question as to its potential for security applications. But its creators say the real purpose in bringing the CUPID to life was to spark discussion about responsible and ethical use of unmanned craft.

Just the same, it might be smart to have such a discussion outside CUPID’s earshot.

The SXSW Interactive Show may not be as well-established as some of its competitors, but it retains much of its indie cache. It provides a forum for industry experts and enthusiasts to discuss the ever-changing tech landscape, and continues to serve as a launching pad for some of the most innovative and imaginative software, hardware, and emerging technologies on the market today.

What tech trends are you excited to see expand in 2014? Let us know in the comments!

SXSW Interactive image is in the public domain.
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