Exclusive Innovation Insights from SXSW 2016

At the end of every SXSW, guests come away with a plethora of industry insights and trends. In the first part of our two-part SXSW series, you read about retail, virtual reality, social platforms, and more – but that’s not all. Below, we explore popular topics and the ever-growing world of mobile technology and robotics straight from the Rocketeers who know it best.


The growing world of Mobile

Michael Griffith, Vice President User Experience and Executive Creative Director

Every year, there are a few hot topics discussed at SXSW, but they all exist independent of each other. This year the trending topics were VR, AI, data, and security with many sessions overlapping in some or all of these topics. Though trend followers have seen road signs pointing to concepts like digital convergence and singularity, they can now see them rising over the horizon.

Mobile is the driver and will often be the connective tissue between of all these technologies and concepts. It also drives the development of APIs, which are crucially important as brands start to mash up these concepts of VR, AI, data, and security into real solutions. Before mobile, only eight or so years ago, our technology dreams were limited by hardware and software. Nowadays, nearly anything someone can dream up is possible from a technology perspective, the biggest challenge being usable APIs. Designing services and data to be flexible and consumable in as many ways possible remains crucial as brands advance along this path.

As brands propel forward, the definition of mobile blurs. At this point, it's easier to define what mobile is not. It seems clear that mobile operating systems will just become operating systems within the next few years. As brands think about and design apps, they will recognize that the app will need to live on multiple platforms, and the UX will need to adapt to the use cases associated with that particular device. What will your banking app look like on a phone, watch, tablet, TV, and even a car dashboard?

These are exciting times!


Innovation around mobile and expected trends

Amy Huff, Strategist

As an SXSW newbie, I was determined to discover everything. I failed miserably. Through my over-planning and multiple backup strategies, I found myself in the Data Ethics in the Age of the Quantified Society panel.

This panel dazzled me with their expertise on the subject of gray data living in nearly all instances of data collection, data sharing, and business applications. The power of data, privilege, and how it might apply to data proved to be especially thought to provoke. On the surface, data collection appeared fairly benign until further discussion revealed darker applications. What is unbiased truth? How can, and should we, regulate data collection and applications? Who would make the regulation? The answer is rarely that easy.

The other session that I enjoyed was Innovators or Idiots: Mobile’s Next Hits and Misses hosted by Urban Airship. The panelists focused on the trends in the next 12-18 months rather than on any real misses with focus on VR/AR. All felt VR has made a lot of progress but still has a lot to achieve in upcoming years. For AR, they outlined a trend towards contextual, even temporary experiences that have yet to really take off: a shared walk through a park, leaving a song for someone in a café to pick up, or even an app for an event that would prompt deletion once the experience ends.


Robotics, technology, and beyond

Lee Brown, Strategist

There is a price to social incompetence. For humans, that price can come in the form of a lack of critical relationships, a lack of access to jobs or housing, and a lack of freedom. In short, if you can’t play nice with others, nobody wants to play with you.

As I learned from the One Robot Doesn’t Fit All panel, the same is true of robots.

This panel addressed the concept of general-purpose robots, ones that attempt to do everything, vs. unitasker robots, ones that perform only a couple of functions very well. They also discussed how to make robots acceptable to people. The key isn’t so much in [humanizing their appearance], but is instead in how they act.

Let’s start with the Amazon Echo.

Wait a minute – is Amazon Echo considered a robot? In many ways, yes. It performs a function that a human needs and it can act autonomously. However, these panelists felt there were issues with two key aspects: performance and anticipation. Since Echo remains motionless and doesn’t look to people for cues or feedback, it doesn’t give the user any indication that it is about to act. The overall consensus was that a very powerful AI is not sufficient to create a good robot that humans will trust and develop a rapport with.

As another viewpoint to this problem, the panelists presented trash can on wheels. In a controlled experiment, researchers set out to discover how people reacted to this robotic mobile trash collector:

  • People found joy when the robot happily completed tasks like accepting garbage.
  • People anthropomorphized the robot and thought it wanted to eat the trash.
  • When people wanted the robot to come near them, they would whistle at it or hold out garbage for it to take. Nobody initiated verbal communication (“Garbage can, come here”) in these interactions.
  • If people that did not want the robot to come near, they would avoid looking at it.
  • The group became annoyed or surprised if the robot came near people that clearly didn’t have any garbage.
  • People imbued the robot with far greater intelligence than a trash can deserves, in almost any case.
[In short], people like robots [and other pieces of technology] that have clear purposes.  Humans like to know what [the affordance of items as well as] how to operate it. [If that affordance is not easily discoverable], the user will blame the machine.

Another robot is Shimi, a robot that listens and dances to music users like (basically DJ Roomba of Parks and Rec fame). Even though its functions are limited to sweet dance moves and picking out sick tunes, a person can become simpatico with it ­in ways Amazon’s Echo can’t achieve.

Then they looked at robots that don’t just play music; they make it. Shimon, a perceptual music robot, can play the Marimbas and nod her head to a rhythm. Shimon can look to a person for cues and imparts information in the same way humans do. When Shimon nods her head, she’s communicating enjoyment. She relies on a person to provide that information, but she never explicitly asks for it. She only requires that a person starts playing, then she performs and plays her part.

The story Panelist Takayama told was that she often had problems crossing through a robot’s visual threshold [in a robotics lab] while it tried to [analyze the task at hand]. The robot in question required an insane amount of spatial data, even though the robot in question looked inactive. Furthermore, whether the robot succeeded or failed [at its task], it reacted the same. Since humans don’t like failure, why should robots?

The key for robots isn’t necessarily functional competence. Humans don’t think much of robots that can perform a task very well. A slick-looking robot that can open a door with a high degree of success is not [considered as intelligent] as something that looks like WALL-E fails to open doors and looks like he was thinking about how to do it and felt sad when he failed.

When it comes to a robot’s affordable, social competence is comparable to functional competence. This means performance is key. The robot must perform using body language in a way that is recognizable to humans. We rely on social cues to read one another and understand intention. Without knowing a machine’s intent, it is somewhat of a mystery and makes people wary.

Robots function [not only autonomously], but is an extension of a human body or will. An example of this is Double, an iPad-based telepresence robot. Studies have shown people expect the same kind of bodily autonomy and control when [controlling] one of these as they do when they are in their own body – no messing with their screen or redirecting their robot without permission.

Finally, humans perceive robots and other assistant systems and artificial intelligence as tools to meet the demands of users. If these tools require too much of users or are inscrutable, they will trash it. That’s the price it pays for its social incompetence.

To read the full version of Lee's post, check out his article on Medium.


Thank you to all the Rocketeers that contributed to this two-part SXSW series. We’re proud of our team of experts and the knowledge they bring to our team. If you’re interested in hearing from our thought experts, feel free to contact us.

Published by Bottle Rocket in Innovation, Strategy and Insights