At an Annual Tech Show, It’s Hardware’s Turn in the Spotlight
Each year, thousands of tech enthusiasts flock to South by Southwest, the technology, music and film conference here, hoping to be among the first to find the next big thing in social networking and mobile apps.
But this year, it might be a piece of hardware that steals the show. The most talked-about start-ups this year include the maker of a camera that automatically takes a photo every 30 seconds, a new game console, and a gadget that lets people control their computers and devices by waving their hands. Hugh Forrest, the director of the technology portion of South by Southwest, estimated that at least two dozen panels, talks and presentations involve some sort of new device or gadget at this year's event — a much higher portion than he could recall from previous years.
"We always hope to be a showcase for new products and ideas in technology and that is reflected this year," he said.
The new emphasis on devices over software reflects a much larger shift in the start-up and tech world, driven by tools like crowdfunding and 3-D printing that make it cheaper, faster and easier to create prototypes. The trend is accelerating partly because of the popularity of and excitement around small companies making items like wearable fitness devices as well as smartwatches developed by Pebble and smart thermostats created by Nest.
And now the devices are taking over the halls and convention center of South by Southwest, which has historically been known as a launchpad for new software services; Twitter, Foursquare, GroupMe and Highlight all got their inaugural push on those convention center grounds.
"This is where software development is going," said Oskar Kalmaru, one of the founders of Memoto, a company that makes a Kickstarter-financed wearable automatic camera that takes pictures at 30-second intervals, creating a kind of personal photographic memory. "The innovating new technology is hardware that has a software component."
The dropping costs of designing and building inventive new hardware products has prompted a wave of creativity and innovation that echoes the software boom a decade or two ago in Silicon Valley.
Mr. Kalmaru and his team, who are traveling from Stockholm to attend the weeklong conference, are among the hardware companies eager to dazzle and impress the throngs of early adopters, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists who arrive thirsty for the latest in start-ups and innovative ideas.
"It's the same thing that happened with software development over the past 10 to 15 years is now happening to hardware," said Mr. Kalmaru. "It's much easier now."
In some ways, the arrival of artisanal hardware at South by Southwest, said Susan Etlinger, an industry analyst at Altimeter Group, can be seen as an indication that the world of mobile applications and "me-too" social networks has become oversaturated and crowded.
"For mobile start-ups it can be very frustrating and difficult to fight your way through the noise," she said.
Not to mention that the crush of 27,000 conference-goers expected to descend on Austin will most likely strain cellular and data networks and make it difficult to get a signal on smartphones, let alone successfully use and try out a new app there.
"It's just too hard for a small start-up to get noticed there," said Jen Grenz, a vice president of a mobile company called Lango that is releasing a messaging application this week. But it is not attending the event to do so. Snapchat, one of the most talked-about apps in the tech world, is also skipping the event.
But chief executives of the hardware companies Nest and Jawbone will be there for the first time, although other executives from their companies have attended in years past.
Julie Uhrman, the founder and chief executive behind Ouya, a Kickstarter-financed Android gaming machine, is a keynote speaker. The company recently announced that its consoles would begin shipping in late March.
Bre Pettis, the founder of the Makerbot 3-D printers, is delivering the opening remarks of the festival and speaks again at a presentation by Supermechanical, a hardware company based in Austin that makes Wi-Fi-enabled sensors that can be used to detect things like moisture. Such a device could alert its owner by text message that the basement is flooding.
Like the software companies, hardware makers want to capture the attention of influential people who are inclined to tell their friends about a hot new device. It is also likely that the type of people attending South by Southwest will be interested in purchasing a "lifelogging" camera or a gesture-based controller.
"The right kind of social experience can take off there," said Kira Wampler, a vice president at Lytro, which makes a sleek, rectangular camera that lets users refocus photographs after they are taken. "It is a group of people who are really interested in exploring what is new."
Ms. Wampler said SXSW was the company's first major event. Lytro has set up an area where curious attendees can sign up for photo walks or try out and buy Lytro cameras, which start at $400.
The company will also have 100 devices available for people to borrow for a day.
The makers of the Leap Motion Controller, a gadget that lets people control their computers and devices by waving their hands — not unlike those seen in the movie "Minority Report" — are setting up a dozen demonstration tents in the parking lot of a barbecue restaurant and inviting attendees to try out the device.
Michael Buckwald, a founder and the chief executive of Leap Motion, said the company's goal was to create a way for people to "walk up and walk into what we see as the future."
Joining the little start-ups are some behemoth device makers. Samsung, which had a large presence at both the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January and the Mobile World Congress cellphone trade show in Barcelona last week, is setting up shop at South by Southwest too. One of the biggest companies in the world, Samsung is giving away free rides in Uber cabs and snacks like ice cream and pizza, and is hosting a panel with "Arrested Development" cast members to try to drum up some attention for its line of Galaxy smartphones.