SXSW 2014 Round Up: Innovation and Tragedy in Texas

By Silicon Allee |

By our roving international correspondents Roy Malkin and Don Oparah at SXSW in Austin

As always, this year’s South by Southwest (SXSW) music/film/interactive festival provided a lot of great music, innovative movies and interesting keynote speakers. But it also had a darker side with an out of control driver plowing through dozens of concert goers, leaving three people dead and dozens injured. Here are some highlights – and tragic lowlights – from this year’s conference, which ended on Sunday.

Going Gaga

Lady Gaga gave the keynote speech for music. Wearing an eccentric white plastic bag outfit that would probably be deemed ordinary for her, she advised people to be themselves and claimed that she would do so “until they f***ing close the coffin” and would “retire if I can’t be myself.” At SXSW, Lady Gaga was indeed her provocative self, with a live performance that included riding a mechanical pig, and singing while another performer vomited on her as she sang the song “Swine.”

A Future Up in Flames

Using the American constitution as a backdrop, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden spoke about Web surveillance and digital privacy in a live webcast during the interactive portion of SXSW. He accused the NSA of setting fire to the future of the Internet and called on users to educate themselves on encryption and anonymous browsing.

“We need to think of encryption not as an arcane, dark art, but as a basic protection,” he said. His speech and appearance received a very positive response from the SXSW audience. But perhaps lost in the speech was that irony that Snowden was calling in from Russia, which itself is currently clamping down on free speech, closing down the most popular independent TV station and Internet sites.

Tragedy at SXSW

This year’s festival was not only a scene of revelry, but unfortunately one of tragedy as well. A drink driving suspect trying to evade police tore through a crowded street with his car and killed two people – with another dying a few days later – while injuring about two dozen others. One of the witnesses described the scene as looking like something out of a war zone. The suspect, Rashad Charjuan Owens, was charged with one count of capital murder on Friday (although more charges can be added later) after reportedly intentionally steering towards pedestrians in the incident on Thursday.

A Woman’s Touch

Two women with family ties to famous men stepped out of their shadows to deliver great speeches at the interactive conference. Bill Clinton’s daughter Chelsea Clinton and Anne Wojicki, who married Google co-founder Sergey Brin in 2007, give keynotes about important topics on such as how to save 750,000 children around the world who die each year from dehydration caused by diarrhea and how genetic information can impact the future of healthcare.

Startup Showcase

SXSW is a major arena for some of the worlds best startups to showcase their stuff, and is the same conference that is credited for launching Twitter and Foursquare into mainstream acceptance. Here are 3 of the ones that stood out:

ThriveOn – A platform that provides personalised online programs and coaching to strengthen mental health and help people deal with their psychiatric issues. A very large market considering that a quarter of adults in the US have a diagnosed psychiatric disorder.

Trustev – This startup enables e-commerce stores to fight fraud though identity verification with help of big data, social graphs algorithms and analytics; analysing everything from where you login on Facebook to how fast the mouse moves on screen.

Skully Helmets – A great use of augmented reality with motorcycle helmets utilising rear-view cameras and GPS that allows the rider to have a complete picture of what’s around him, including the road behind, weather updates, etc. It’s slightly reminiscent of the Google Glass experience.

On the Big Screen

There were some must-see films at SXSW:

Joe – Nicolas Cage stars in this drama as a rugged ex-con and lumberer from the South who has to battle alcoholism and uncontrollable rage, while taking under his wing a neglected teenage boy.

Chef – Made by Jon Favreau, who also stars in this comedy and who is famous for directing Iron Man and starring in the classic Swingers, this is a movie about a renowned chef who leaves the restrictive traditional restaurant business and goes into the world of food trucks. (Which are ironically everywhere at SXSW itself – and are in general common in Austin). Favreau proved to be a crowd favorite at SXSW.

The Grand Budapest Hotel – Austin native Wes Anderson comes up with another gem as he directs a film that stars Ralph Fiennes as the adventurous concierge at a famous European hotel who takes on a protege lobby boy named Zero. In its quirky and methodical way the film tries to capture the nostalgia for old Europe prior to the Fascist rise to power and delivers on its effort. Watch out for appearances by Anderson regulars such as Bill Murray.

Top of the Pops

Picking the most interesting music moments was tough as there were so many great performances, but the three that stood out were:

Apple’s five-day iTunes Festival – this was definitely one of the hot tickets at SXSW with lines stretching across multiple city blocks. It featured rising rapper Kendrick Lamar, who was widely expected to get a Grammy a month earlier (but lost out to Macklemore), as well as Coldplay who played some tracks from their latest album.

British Music Embassy – the UK as a nation was presented at its own dedicated venue at Latitude and included awesome performances from bands like Glass Animals, who debuted their song Gooey.

Snoop Do and St. Lucia at Stubbs BBQ – the famous BBQ joint that also doubles as a music venue featured a strange but inspiring paring of Indie-electronic rock band St. Lucia and veteran rapper Snoop Dog who rolled in with his entourage (including NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal) and advised the crowd to smoke weed every day while using using Rastafari and Jamaican images as a backdrop.