SXSW 2021: Looking through the Lens of Commerce
Chrissie Hanson
29 March 2021

How SXSW Blends Aftershocks, Mixed Reality, and the ‘You of Things’

This year, the SXSW conference felt like a forum for the collective acknowledgement and processing of 2020. The event that, in years past, turned the city of Austin into a fantastically energetic gathering for creatively minded, and technologically forward folk, moved online. With sessions available on-demand, the urgency to plan one’s schedule, and rush to catch the keynotes was replaced by a quieter, more considered approach. Many sessions began with a review of the past year, as presenters reflected upon the challenges endured, and the steps taken as people and businesses fought to survive. The focus and tone then shifted to one of measured hope, and pensive perspectives on a future that will likely contain the aftershocks of a most challenging year.


The Retail environment continues to be a pioneering space that provides some of the earliest signals regarding consumer change. In Immersive Retail: Connected Shopping in a New Era, Silke Meixner, IBM’s Digital Business Strategy Partner delved into the innovations that separated the pandemic winners and losers. The ability to render every single product for a virtual environment was held up as one example. Virtual experiences give customers the ability to discover, research, see, experience, and share brands and products across their networks, and then click to purchase when they’re ready. However, marketers and technologists must have the right functions and features to deliver a seamless omnichannel experience that is truly personalized; one that removes the friction of having to keep logging into multiple devices as one moves from screen to screen. Tony Parisi, Unity Technology’s Global Head of AR/VR Ad Innovation added that 3D technology is here to stay, reducing the cost of photo shoots for product catalogues, while also increasing the levels of customers interactions. By allowing shoppers to interact with virtual clothes in interactive ‘fitting rooms’ with friends, and then adapt, edit, and place those items in different contexts, the co-creation of the brand and product content between the end user and the retailer is deepening and broadening the eCommerce experiences that are possible.


The subject of VR featured prominently in What’s Next in Social? Enter the MetaVerse. The panellists offered a definition of the metaverse as being a ‘VR space where we bring a representation of ourselves into a persistent digital world, where we have the opportunity to blend the virtual and digital into an online community.’ But even this definition is challenging, because the root of the words ‘meta’ (which means after, and beyond) and ‘verse’ (which refers to the universe) mean that some will argue that the metaverse is more than a VR space, that it goes far beyond a game, platform, or world.

While we can debate the nuances of the term, what’s clear is that there’s potential significant eCommerce value to be gained from the Metaverse. Amazon already sells inside Twitch, Nike recently debuted custom skins and limited-edition products in Fortnite, and last year, Roblox players could buy Wonder Woman accessories to dress up their own avatars. The ability for brands to create far more intimate connections using content, commerce, and the community of the metaverse, to create more valued and valued brand experiences and monetize them is evident, and as always, those who move at speed, testing, learning, iterating, and optimizing at speed will be the ones to watch. However, this space does require brands to tread with care.


Jessica Freeman, Head of Minecraft Marketing, Microsoft explained that as every aspect of our life (be it work, school, play) has shifted online, we’re increasingly experimenting with VR and 3D spaces, avatars, shared games and experiences. The digital space permits both functional interaction, and emotional connection. While the digital experience and space are currently not optimized well, we need to figure out how we better architect these for the human condition, both a physiological and psychological perspective. For there is a fundamental human need to connect, and the bonding in the metaverse will need to allow for a better experience than is possible in the real world, otherwise people will simply exit it. And brands need to understand that goal of connection, as they map out their commerce goals.


In 2021 Emerging Tech Trend Report, Founder of Future Today Institute, Amy Webb shared her insightful and comprehensive analysis of the most urgent tech trends we should have on our radar. Looking at her report through the lens of commerce, the implications and applications of mixed reality on the moment of transaction shone through. The digital and the physical realms have been increasingly intertwining, and soon, many more people will be tagging, saving, transacting seamlessly in mixed reality spaces.

Add to this the concept of the You of Things, which, as the name suggests, shifts the Internet of Things to the personal realm. Y.O.T. uses sensors to connect your body to a network, and that network connects your data, via the internet, to third parties. The potential uses of Y.O.T. include the tracking and capture of your real-time emotions and biometric data that would correlate your responses to advertising or brand experiences stimuli to your likelihood to purchase, so that an incentivizing message or offer could be served if needed to nudge you back into the purchase cycle. Innovations in the Y.O.T. space require us to submit to even greater surveillance, in exchange for convenience and other benefits, but the implications on privacy, regulation, and ethics are considerable and will continue to be wrangled over the next few years.


Some of the more immediate innovations we can expect as retail returns to the physical are centred on answering the consumer call for greater safety. There are medical grade COVID scanners that perform a temperature check and display the temperature back to the user. The system will either accept or refuse people entry based upon their temperature. Such scanners can be programmed to limit the capacity of entrance to a store.

The retailers that thrived were the ones that were most prepared for change. The ones that had digital transformation plans that sought to de-risk investments in innovation, by containing costs. By having a series of scalable tests which they could set up, run, and learnt from at speed, it was possible to gather the proof points and evidence of what would work, to give the confidence to then scale the technology and its application, while still being able to flexibility deal with shifting capacity and bandwidth realities.

As states and countries continue to re-open, we’ll soon see which of these SXSW innovations will appear in a mall or digital store near you, making your experience feel safer, smoother, and potentially optimized to your mood, your needs, and your wants.

View our SXSW 2021 Global Debrief here and watch my conversation with two of OMD’s key thought leaders about SXSW here.

“The focus and tone then shifted to one of measured hope, and pensive perspectives on a future that will likely contain the aftershocks of a most challenging year.”

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