SouthBy was back as an in-person event for the first time in three years in Austin, Texas, this time as a hybrid festival of both in-person and virtual sessions. With the pandemic still in play, the crowds were a little lighter this year, but although conference content was a little slimmed down compared to 2019, choosing which of the hundreds of daily sessions to see was still a ‘FOMO’-inducing challenge. Wunderman Thompson Intelligence was on the ground, skimming the content for this year’s trends and highlights. Here’s our round-up.

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angelbaby at the SXSW Fluf Village: Fluf World

A Better Metaverse

Despite a sprinkle of skepticism (see Mark Cuban, Professor Scott Galloway), the Metaverse dominated the festival, with at least fifty talks and events on the theme. For the doubters, Epic Games’ Raffella Camera had a few choice words at the What’s in a Metaverse session, saying: “The Metaverse is not a fad, we’ve been here for thirty years. We’re still just scratching the surface of personas, ownership, interconnectedness, and interoperability. What’s new, is that we now have the tools to build it.”

Across the conference, the conversation centered on not just building the Metaverse, but how to ensure that it is open, accessible, and fair. The virtual spaces we have now are “islands,” according to Second Life founder Philip Rosedale speaking alongside Camera. He explained that in future, these islands will be connected by ‘bridges’ to form a true Metaverse. Camera called for “open standards of ownership” in the Metaverse rather than ceding overall control to one company. Meta was not named directly, but the spectre of the tech giant seeking to own this space loomed over many conversations. “We should treat virtual spaces as public commons,” said Rosedale. “Keep them fair and open.”

Speakers at the Creating a Real, Open, and Inclusive Metaverse session discussed the need for a "Metaverse Manifesto." Host Brooke Howard-Smith, founder of Non-Fungible Labs & the Fluf World NFT ecosystem kicked off the discussion with a question: "Thirty years into the internet, only 59% of the world's population have access. How on Earth do we go about creating an inclusive metaverse?"

Panellist Rahilla Zahar pointed out that Web3 is attracting more women and enabling their creativity and financial empowerment in lower income countries. “Typically, this was a very closed door, just for tech bros and very intimidating to someone who wasn’t part of those circles.” Now she says, women are realising, “there are no barriers. I can be anywhere in the world; I just need an internet connection.” Zahar, producer of the upcoming documentary Minted which explores the Web3 cultural renaissance, gave the example of Nigerian twin sister artists who made a life-changing sale of 21 NFTs.

Metaverse sustainability was also on the agenda at SXSW, with several promotions by “green blockchain” providers including Tezos and Algorand. Both underlined their use of a ‘Proof of Stake’ model instead of the energy-intensive ‘Proof of Work’ approach as central to driving down their emissions. It is rumoured that one of the biggest blockchain players, Ethereum will follow suit some time in 2022, helping to alleviate some of the eco-concern surrounding the technology.

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Doodles activation

The Future for NFTs

NFTs made a lot of noise at SXSW. You could buy and collect the digital assets at exclusive drops by artists from DMC to Dolly Parton. You could hang out at NFT activations, visit NFT galleries, buy NFT sneakers or listen to a score of NFT-themed panels and talks. An activation called The Ledger, hosted by headline sponsor Blockchain Creative Labs converted data from SXSW itself into an NFT. Even Beeple, the original NFT artist was there. Are NFTs the future of content distribution? Opinions are divided.

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The Ledger

NYU Stern’s Scott Galloway sees long-term potential in the digital assets, underpinned by the need to signify status in digital spaces. The futurist Amy Webb is more skeptical, pointing to growing saturation of the NFT market as a potential dampener on value. Webb believes they are a something of a “shiny” distraction but admits that the infrastructure behind them is more interesting and will “enable entirely new business models.”

Indeed, several speakers highlighted the benefits of NFTs beyond just pulling in revenue: their ability to unlock new models for ownership; to drive connection and community as a new way of aggregating capital as well as to create safe spaces for people to explore and monetize their creativity.

For William Quigley, a crypto pioneer, NFTs will evolve to supercharge innovation. At the Future for NFTs Beyond Art and Collectibles panel, he said, We think of them as media files, but as we start to see smart NFTs, they have intelligence embedded that can do something. Because they are computers, they are programmable. Anything you can program, you can program into NFTs.” This says, Quigley, magnifies their potential, particularly because, on the blockchain, code is open to anyone to freely take and replicate. “You can rapidly copy the base code in a smart contract to do something else. The pace of innovation is unbelievable.” He sees future application in the medical, travel and insurance sectors and more.

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Snapdragon AI Metaverse Avatar creator

The Age of Virtual Humans

There was plenty of opportunity to create your virtual meta-self at the conference, from the hyper-realistic like BlueVishnu, to the playful like Snapdragon’s My Metaverse Style. Most speakers agreed with Mark Zuckerberg that there’s room for more than one type of avatar in our lives, and that we will change the way we look according to context. “You’re not going to want to represent yourself in one way all the time,” said the Meta CEO.

When we enter virtual worlds, we humans will not be alone. Epic Games’ Raffaella Camera revealed that there are already more than 1 million meta-humans, vying to serve as extras in advertising, or to handle digital concierge services. They might also be set to steal the limelight. “The world’s first Metastar” is Angelbaby, a digitally rendered eight-foot-tall rabbit with the catchphrase “Bunnies Up!” The artist created for the hume collective’s web3 record label performed to a live audience at the Fluf World space in a blur of digital and physical realities.

Angelbaby has company. At The future of influence doesn’t involve humans, a virtual human named Zero joined the panel to chat in real time. Zero is the first virtual influencer from the Nexus Universe, a storytelling start-up created by Offbeat Media Group that is being backed by Mark Cuban. Zero lives in a virtual bunker, and hangs out with friends across Discord, TikTok and Snapchat. Right now, Zero is created using a human voice actor and a performer wearing a motion-capture suit, but over time the intention is to replace these human elements to make Zero autonomous. Ultimately, Zero’s story could be controlled by NFT holders or members of a DAO (digital autonomous organization). Cuban commented, “Twenty years from now when computer power is greater you could be in VR talking to virtual humans that look real. Everything will look real. That's where we're going.”

For Charlie Fink, XR writer, educator, and host of the What’s in a Metaverse? panel, that’s the big worry. “What if we can’t tell what’s real? What if the whole world is a deepfake?” None of his panel seemed to have the answer.

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The Trans Texas Need Us Panel

The Inclusion Revolution

While virtual humans grabbed the headlines, some of the most profound discussion at SXSW centered on real lives and the need for governments, brands, and businesses to now step up their efforts to drive and shape inclusion for marginalized communities.

Storm Smith, a deaf producer in advertising issued a reminder at a panel offering Big Bold Ideas for a More Inclusive World that “the purchasing power of people with disabilities is $8 trillion and increasing every day. Don’t leave that money on the table.” Her co-panellist, the communications tech CEO Sherri Turpin, called on business leaders to do more: “This is not a deaf issue, this is a hearing issue. “It starts at the C-Suite. It starts with the CEO. [Change] will ripple not just through the organisation but through the world.”

At a panel exploring accessibility in the music industry hosted by the Australian disabled musician Eliza Hull, there was a sense that positive change feels imminent. Lachi, an award-winning American recording artist who is blind summed it up: “Now diversity is finally being looked at in this country. Now the people in charge look different. We've been hitting against a straight white cis male wall. Now really is the time."

Despite the ongoing challenges of being ‘othered’ as the son of immigrants in America, New York Times writer Wajahat Ali also sees change on the horizon. In a conversation with fellow writer Anand Giridharadas to launch his memoir, ‘Go Back to Where you Came From’, he describes what’s happening now as a backlash against a better future: “What I see now is the death rattle of white supremacy. We now need a multicultural coalition of the willing. We need multicultural avengers to step up.”

For young transgender Texans the picture is currently bleaker. A hastily arranged but exceptionally impactful panel “Trans Texans Need Us: Hear from the Front Lines” discussed a new state-wide order that requires child welfare agency to treat gender-affirming care as child abuse thus criminalising parents. Yet even here, there was room for a little optimism. Panellist Andy Marra of the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund said “I think they've overplayed their hand. Using young people as a political weapon? Not a good idea.”

For more on SXSW see our pieces on Doodles@SXSW, FRAMERATE, Disruptive travel and the Dollyverse. You can also read about Wunderman Thompson Argentina and Unilever’s win in the SXSW Innovation Awards for Degree Inclusive here.

Until next year!

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