Cars, Virtual Reality, Blockchain (& Grumpy Cat) Lead Pack at SXSW

Austin — Since Twitter made a name for itself at South by Southwest in 2007, attendees have tried in vain to predict the next big tech breakout. Facebook made headlines in 2008, and Foursquare followed a year later. But nothing seemed to be the same as Twitter. By 2013, Grumpy Cat was dubbed winner of the festival.

It got to the point where SXSW Interactive’s director, Hugh Forrest, described the Twitter blowup as the festival’s biggest moment and its biggest albatross, according to CNN. Last year, it seemed for a moment as if the chatter around live-streaming apps Meerkat and Periscope was the panacea for which everyone had waited. But San Francisco-based Meerkat is apparently moving away from live streaming, and Periscope is by no means as ubiquitous in the tech community as its parent company, Twitter. (Twitter might contend Periscope is making quite an impact.)

Still, it’s fair to say at this year’s SXSW, tech innovations in cars, virtual reality, and blockchain (or fintech companies in general)—developments that have potential to be big, but aren’t quite there yet—were the headliners. So it may just be that the headlines are not as large as they once were.

From Samsung to McDonald’s, many of the largest brands advertising at SXSW offered virtual reality experiences to badge holders, tapping into the anticipation festival goers seem to have for San Francisco-based Oculus Rift’s planned launch of its Rift headset in a few weeks.

Panel after panel discussed ongoing innovations in the automobile industry, from things as simple as connected cars and parking apps, such as Dallas-based Vinli, to the problems solved and created by autonomous vehicles.

Even as new technologies gain broader recognition, aspects of SXSW like pitch competitions, remain a staple of the event.. The 2016 SXSW Accelerator selected 48 companies in six categories from hundreds of applicants to pitch over two days, with one from each category eventually being named a winner. Similar competitions, such as the ReleaseIt event and one focused on pediatric health, can be the only times some small startups will be able to talk about their product to a large audience.

Fittingly, a couple of the winners of the much larger SXSW Accelerator developed products related to cars, VR, and blockchain. (You can get a list of all the winners here.)

Parknav, a San Francisco-based maker of an app that provides real-time information about the availability of on-street parking, was the enterprise and smart data winner. CEO Eyal Amir said the company can predict whether a street has any available spots to park on with 80 percent accuracy, utilizing data from navigation companies, telecom companies, and proprietary data from users.

“With this kind of data model, we become more precise as more users use it,” he said. The company is in 40 U.S. cities and 200 in Europe, where it already has a deal to incorporate its tool in new BMWs in Germany, Amir said.

On the fintech side of the SXSW Accelerator, Portland, OR-based Chroma won for its development of a crowdfunding portal meant to raise debt or equity capital for private companies. The company uses blockchain verification systems as a method of providing ownership proof of the investments, an increasingly popular method of record keeping.

But most companies still remain blips on the overall SXSW radar, especially in comparison to a phenomenon like Twitter. So where does that leave the festival? Mashable—known for a popular annual events that this year included DJs, temporary tattoos, and (of course) virtual reality videos—published a column that ponders whether the festival may have jumped the shark.

Whether that’s true or not, there are a couple things to remember: Even if there aren’t huge breakout events like Twitter, SXSW can be a pretty big deal to some startups. The second, and perhaps more important thing to remember, is that people love Grumpy Cat. She returned to SXSW yet again in 2016, and the lines to see her were as long as ever.

David Holley is Xconomy's national correspondent based in Austin, TX. You can reach him at dholley@xconomy.com Follow @xconholley

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