When asked for our impression of SXSW, those of us who have attended the annual gathering will always sound like the three blind men returning with vastly varied stories of the elephant, each altogether incomplete. There’s so much, and ever more, to hear, to learn, to experience, and always too much to fully encapsulate in a few words on a page. Here’s an admittedly small segment of the elephant.
Three main themes seemed to come up again and again regardless of the session or trade show booth. The first theme that evolved out of the Big Data buzz and the Wearables we all thought would be everything last year. Let’s call it Data Lifecycle, a theme that follows information’s path from sensors, through data processing to data-driven design. Second, perhaps no surprise given the hardware buzz for the past year, is the theme of new realities, or the worlds of virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and sometimes mixed reality. And finally, smart machines including artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), robots, and drones.
How did each of these touch healthcare? Let’s take a peek…
Data Lifecycle—Sensors, data, and data-driven design
Taking a holistic view of the tsunamic flow of data all around us today, visionaries are harnessing the power behind the seemingly chaotic swirl of information and turning it into healthcare where you’d least expect it. One of the most inspiring examples of this was a panel called “Using Design & Tech to Create a Healthy Community,” where panelists Stacey Chang and Brad Carlin, with support from artist Jennifer Chenoweth and pharma’s Paul Stang, painted a picture of how art could be used to collect and give data back to the community for healthy outcomes. This included an emotional heat-map of Austin and using art to help better influence healthy behavior by revealing the truth within the data. We will be seeing a lot more of this kind of data-driven population health in the near future.
New Realities—Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, and sometimes Mixed Reality
With an entire hall filled with VR experiences, a devoted section of the trade show floor and a track of sessions that crossed the Interactive and Film festivals, VR reigned at SXSW 2017. AR, the tech that layers digital on top of the real world instead of replacing it, held its own especially in the sessions. From a healthcare POV, AR is going to be huge, no doubt, in the medical world and in all of our lives as we’ll need more and more contextual information, the more data we sense and swim in every day (see theme #1). The strongest healthcare impact of VR was showcased in several sessions about VR Therapy as treatment itself, including James Lebret and Duncan Ransom discussing “Diversional Therapy: How VR Transforms Illness” and a panel entitled “Advocating VR and Gaming in Hospitals” where an amazing team described the brilliant programs they have put together to help improve the lives and the pain, depression, and anxiety levels of children at CS Mott Children’s Hospital in Michigan and similar programs around the country.
Smart Machines—Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Robots, and Drones
Electronic devices have worn the smart moniker for years now but everyone in tech can sense that we’re on the precipice of a seismic step up in the level of smarts available to our technological creations. No less than the greatest minds of our time have expressed concern and trepidation around the prospects of artificial intelligence. Nonetheless, progress marches on and for healthcare that means innovations that would be impossible without the help of these new forms of AI and ML. For example, SXSW 2017 was rich with a new crop of Personal Genetics technologies and companies. AI/ML make it possible to crunch the large amounts of genetic data for an individual based on analyses of massive population data sets to achieve feats from understanding your own personal caffeine tolerance to joining forces to fight deadly blood cancers.
SXSW 2017 wasn’t the wild world of new web or app platforms like it’s been in the past. No sign of “the next Twitter” or even a Periscope or Meerkat. Instead, this year we got a peek into the mind of the digital world at our doorstep: A world of data, the new forms of intelligence bubbling up to process all that data, and the limitless worlds beyond reality that we’ll inhabit in the days to come. Who knows, in a few years, maybe we’ll all be able to virtually attend SXSW and expand our minds in digital rooms that can never fill up no matter how many of us file in. And then a few years after that, perhaps there won’t be any of us in attendance at all, as we all will have sent our AI assistants in our stead to collect and process all the new data that’s been collected about our world and all the new ways devised to collect it—data beyond any human’s ability to process. As with all new technology, we’ve got to look beyond the tech in front of us to wherever our imagination can take us. That kind of thinking is the true magic we take away from SXSW each and every year.