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SXSW Interactive Highlights: Mixed Reality And AI

by Anne Bothwell 14 Mar 2018

Quite a mixture of minds gathered in Austin over the weekend to discuss the crossroads of technology and culture. KERA Digital Coordinator Christy Robinson just got back from the SXSW Interactive Festival, and she sat down with me to talk about the highlights. You can click above to listen to our chat, which aired on KERA FM, or read some excerpts below:

The Interactive portion of the conference focuses on the intersection of tech and culture. That combination hits so many walks of life.

So many. People were talking about government, law enforcement, futurism, health, graphic design, journalism, food, gaming — you name it.

One of the more out-there, interesting sessions I attended was called “Envisioning Holograms: For Storytellers & Explorers.” It was led by a guy named Mike Pell, who’s an “Envisioneer” at Microsoft Garage.

An envisioneer?

That’s his actual job title! His job is to experiment with virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality — what the industry collectively refers to as “XR” — and to dream up new uses for them that no one’s ever thought of before.

Ok, hold on — that’s a lot of realities. What are they, exactly?

The exact definitions are still being debated, but it basically goes like this:

With virtual reality (VR) you’re immersed into a computer generated environment. When you put on a VR headset, you see a real but simulated scene of, say, a beach. Virtual reality surrounds you and tricks your senses into thinking you’re really there.

With augmented reality (AR) you’re still seeing physical reality, but you’re able to experience something else, too. A lot of apps use AR right now — think of games like Pokemon Go (or the new Jurassic World Alive game).

What’s mixed reality?

Mixed reality (MR) is similar to augmented reality. In fact, there’s a debate about the exact difference between then. Both are the seamless blending of the physical and virtual worlds, in real time. But MR is where you’ll find holograms.

Holography allows the projection of a 3D image into the space in front of you. It doesn’t require any special equipment, like a headset or a smartphone app. You can walk around it, see all sides of it. It’s just there, right in front of you.

I know that this this tech is already being used on some level. But I still grapple with the practical ways we’re going to use it. What kind of ideas is Mike Pell imagining?

For instance, he says that where there’s an empty hotel lobby, he envisions a hologram of a DJ spinning music. He also wants to know why, when you’re reading a book, and you come upon, let’s say an epic battle scene … why can’t you call up a hologram of that battle so you can watch it unfold?

Wow, that’ll be mind-blowing. Are these things coming soon?

The technology exists, but it needs to be perfected. Getting it to the next level involves people like Mike Pell just starting to think of crazy things that might be possible.

I know that artificial intelligence was also a hot topic.

Yes, and by AI, we’re really just talking about computer programs carrying out tasks for us humans in a way we’d consider “smart” or human-like.

A lot of the cultural discussion around AI is about how it’s going to take away everyone’s jobs one day. But at most of the sessions I attended, the vibe was really positive. Folks say tech like AI is going to make life better in the future.

Now, I know SXSW Interactive is full of people who have a major stake in technology being viewed in a non-sinister way, right? But many of the speakers I heard made really compelling cases for a truly more meaningful future — because of technology, not in spite of it.

And you even went to a session about using tech to improve police and community relationships?

Yes, the panelists there were saying technology is making law enforcement agencies more transparent. It can make them better at communicating compassion and care to their communities.

Perry Tarrant is an assistant chief with the Seattle Police Department. He talked about how racial issues have divided police from their communities, and how he hopes technology may be able to free up police so they can do the hard work of human-to-human relationship building.

So how are they doing that?

Well, I think they’re just beginning to wrestle with the question. But one example was from a company called Spidr Tech. That’s a platform that automates some policing tasks, and their aim is to save departments money, yes, but also build trust.

For instance, when a victim files a report, they can get an automated but personalized email that contains information on their case and next steps. The victim not only feels heard, but that sort of automated communication performs a task that the police would otherwise have to do instead of interacting directly with their communities.

That’s just a small example. Even the panelists stressed how complex relationship-building is. We’ll have to wait and see how big of a role technology will play in helping solve a complicated problem like how communities and police relate.


SXSW 2018 runs through Saturday, March 17.