A Judge’s Notebook: 2018 SXSW™ Interactive Innovation Awards

[  It was my privilege to be a part of the judging panel for a third consecutive year .]

[ It was my privilege to be a part of the judging panel for a third consecutive year.]

The SXSW Conference is an epicenter of overlapping technology trends, industry interests, dedicated entrepreneurs, and far-reaching visions. There’s simply too much content, presented in too little time, to take it all in. This fact makes the Interactive Innovation Awards particularly notable as a concentrated snapshot of the state of technology. (NOTE: opinions reflected are personal and denote no official status or endorsement from SXSW).

The Big Picture

If there is one overriding takeaway that marks the 2018 Interactive Innovation Awards as a crossroads it’s this: the vast majority of the finalists (and perhaps a number of others that just missed) are at a much more mature, developed state than in recent years. Many of the finalists in 2016 and 2017 were at earlier stages; prototypes in beta mode, or developed tech in search of viable use cases were both common. In 2018, the entrants were deeper into the development cycle. There were completed projects, pilot programs running with corporate partners, products on the market, and more. At the same time—while there were exceptions—many of the finalists and winners still achieved great success with relatively small teams.

The breakout trend for SXSW 2018 is that humanity is globally connected. The spirit of collaboration was evident throughout the finalist showcase.

Judging in Brief

Only the conference organizers know the exact numbers associated with the judging process. Finalists emerge after a round of preliminary judging in which individual entrants are evaluated across four criteria: Creativity / Innovation, Form / Design, Function / Utility, and Overall Experience. Each judge also states if the entrant is a good fit for the conference. 

The judges then make their final selections on the day of the finalist showcase at the conference by simple ballot. There are thirteen categories in all, plus a best in show. Here are some of the author’s firsthand insights from the experience.

Winning Propositions

While the diversity and breadth of finalists makes overriding pronouncements difficult, there were visible threads common to several winning approaches. The presence of both bigger and deeper thinking united a number of winners. These were a few cases where the entrants looked beyond a singular case to create breakthrough projects.

One of the most impressive projects from any category was the winner for Smart Cities: The Jacques-Cartier Bridge Interactive Illumination Concept (https://momentfactory.com/work/all/all/jacques-cartier-bridge-illumination). A team of seven businesses and governmental agencies captured the pulse of the city of Montreal through a massive LED light installation on this iconic bridge in the center of the city. Built for a 10-year lifespan, the bridge expresses the mood and energy of the city through lightshows informed by both social media and 1,700 individual news and data sources. This is data visualization writ large, with an innovative human fingerprint.

The Hands-Free Music Project by Microsoft enables what was once unthinkable: to allow paralyzed individuals to spontaneously make and play music.

Wearable Tech is another category that reached new limits in 2018. While some entrants in past years resembled more of a sci-fi costume than a practical, wearable garment, this year’s winner
Jacquard™ by Google ( http://atap.google.com/jacquard/ ) elevated the category. The innovation involves conductive threads literally woven into the fabric of garments. The test case: a denim jacket marketed by Levis™, was first and foremost a garment; the tech was unobtrusive. The garment links to the wearer’s smartphone, and uses simple touch gestures on the jacket to interact with the app. Touches and directional swipes answer or decline phone calls, advance music selections, adjust volume, and more. The use of a washable, woven-in conductive circuit enables a new level of interaction for any number of garment types, from high fashion to industrial safety.

The combined VR & AR category also yielded a surprising innovation. Developed through the production of a 3D animated VR feature film Arden’s Wake, the winner: Maestro: Empowering VR Storytelling Through Social Collaboration by Penrose Studios ( http://www.penrosestudios.com/ ), brought a new vision to producing such projects. 3D animated features frequently involve collaboration between teams across not just countries but continents. The Maestro software allows hands-on, VR collaboration from remote locations within the actual VR worlds of the production. The makers facilitated a demo during the Award showcase in which anyone could get a firsthand tour of the software with the feature film’s director and lead animator right on the production’s VR “set.” With VR projected to grow dramatically in the coming years, this represents a breakthrough development for makers in the field.

One additional entry worthy of note is the Hands-Free Music Project by Microsoft (https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/research/project/microsoft-hands-free-music/ ). This project illustrates both an exceptional level of empathy (as a music-making technology for those immobilized by illness or accident) and a complex, interdisciplinary solution. Using eye-tracking technology, real-time inputs and composition tools, and linked instruments (including a live, robotic drum kit), the project enables what was once unthinkable: to allow paralyzed individuals to spontaneously make and play music. Microsoft has made a strong commitment to inclusive design; the Hands-Free Music Project is an outcome worthy of its recognition as the winner for Music Innovation.

Toughest Category: Visual Media Experience

Perhaps no category exemplifies both the growth and quality of the awards competition better than Visual Media Experience. Not only were the finalists of consistently high quality and diverse approaches, but also even a number of non-finalists arguably achieved finalist-worthy outcomes.

It’s particularly noteworthy that the category winner diverged sharply from a number of its competing entrants. While a number of entrants achieved high standards through immersive, architectural installations and experiences, the LEGO™ House Fish Designer by LEGO House/Trigger Global ( http://www.triggerglobal.com/work/lego-house-fish-designer ) was decidedly more intimate and personal. The hands-on creation and simple input process enables any individual to build a LEGO fish, and add it to a virtual, HD fish tank. A simple scanner and animation program convert the object into a virtual, swimming fish.

The LEGO™ House Fish Designer was decidedly more intimate and personal than the immersive, architectural installations and experiences of competing finalists.

One additional means of defining the competitive nature of the category is by exploring entries which fell short of finalist considerations. Two separate immersive experiences showcase creativity, craftsmanship, and engagement for visitors. “Prismverse” (http://xex.com.hk/prismverse/) is an audiovisual art installation created for the skincare brand Dr.Jart+ for its campaign called “Light Now. Right Now.” AVA V2 ( https://vimeo.com/188716447  ) was featured at TEDxCERN 2016. Inspired by the iconic dome structures of Buckminster Fuller and particle physics, AVA V2 reflects experiments in particle physics and cosmic rays. Each uniquely explore the possibilities of sensory experiences.

Although in a separate category—SciFi No Longer—the finalist Google™ Earth VR (https://vr.google.com/earth/ ) also illustrates the high standard of the awards competition. Its presentation of iconic world heritage locations such as the Matterhorn and Machu Picchu in high definition VR is stunning, and perhaps as recently as a year ago would have deservedly won its category. Yet at this point in time, the project may appear as a more incremental add-on to Google Earth. 

Insights and Honorable Mentions

A big winner in the competition is the Swarm AI by Unanimous AI ( https://unanimous.ai/what-is-si/). Stating that it “provides the interfaces and algorithms to enable “human swarms” to converge online, combining the knowledge, wisdom, insights, and intuitions of diverse groups into a single emergent intelligence....”, the platform has produced some impressive results. Its winning results in both the AI category and as Best-in-Show testify to its quality.

if inputs depend on a curated community of subject enthusiasts, does this fall outside the perception of an independent AI?

However, there are two factors that may indicate its sophistication is as yet undetermined. Its online communities have indeed made some spectacular predictions as a group—each beyond the reach of any individual that participated. The correct prediction of the 2017 Kentucky Derby Superfecta (the top four horses in finishing order) is one—a prediction that yielded an $11,000 payoff on a $20 bet. However, this raises an important question: if the inputs depend on a curated community of subject enthusiasts (although notably, below the mastery of recognized experts), does this fall outside the perception of an AI reaching independent conclusion? It may also be premature to project its initial accomplishments (many relating to sports and entertainment prognostication) to broader impact without broader testing. Despite these caveats, the entry remains an impressive piece  of research.

There are three other entrants that deserve discussion (in the author’s opinion). Two were category finalists, the last missed the cut:

TinyMOS: Astrophotography made small, smart and social by Y&R Singapore ( http://tinymos.com/). An impressive combination of hardware and software that makes astronomy accessible, it was all the more impressive for being a finalist in two categories: Responsive Design and Student Innovation.

The Cognitive Story by Darwin Ecosystem, Dallas, TX ( http://darwinecosystem.com/cognitive-stories/ ). This machine learning system helps limited individuals (who can’t talk, type, or use eye-tracking technology) to communicate by identifying brainwave patterns that detect intentions and express them to people or systems. It also dramatically simplifies the necessary tech to make it practical outside of research laboratories.

Miner’s Walk by Josephine Lie ( http://www.josephinelie.com/miners-walk ). Miner’s Walk is an interactive documentary exploring the lives of Indonesian miners who trek the steep slopes of the Ijen Crater in search of sulphur. It uses short and long form video, an interactive timeline, and multiple points of view reminiscent of a National Geographic style of storytelling.

A Celebration of Creativity

Regardless of the designations of winner’s and losers, the 2018 SXSW Interactive Innovation Awards celebrate the creativity of diverse teams, concepts and approaches. The showcase gives all attendees who experience it  an invaluable glimpse at emerging technology. 

Reader’s can judge for themselves what merits each finalist exhibited here: 


The award winners are listed here:



: : Contact Tom Berno directly at tb.idea21@gmail.com for more information