Creatives Take Back the Mic at SXSW

by Sara De La Haya March 21 2024

If 2022 and 2023 were all about hype for the metaverse and AI, 2024 was the year of practicality. Instead of the big existential narratives about how AI will change the world, the best creative minds across industries were looking at everyday applications.

You could see the difference everywhere. Two years ago, everything at SXSW was focused on crypto, NFTs, and the metaverse. Brands were throwing money around for showy experiences, like a Paris Hilton DJ set for a crypto-based virtual gaming system (which was crazy fun, by the way).

This year, by contrast, was all about going back to the basics. Our Director Constance Nuttall (c.f. the “How Cross-Reality Experiences are Broadening Horizons for Brands” panel) explained it best: “The metaverse is barely brought up — and when it is, it’s called the ‘m-verse,’ like it’s a bad word. Conversations are still happening about the power of digital platforms and online worlds, but the buzzwords are gone. And we’re back to calling a video game a video game.”

Alex Wills (Disguise), Karl Woolley (Framestore), Constance Nuttall (Journey)

That said, there was a lot about SXSW that hasn’t changed. There was still tons of great live music, from Portland indie rock and Colombian reggaeton to Japanese punk and Northern Irish hip-hop. There was still an incredible range of movie premieres: an Italian nun horror movie, a Sri Lankan road trip movie, a fight club thriller involving a gorilla mask, and a documentary about staging a production of Hamlet within Grand Theft Auto. In other words, all the things that make SXSW great.

Bootsy Collins live at the SXSW Conference Festival 2024 on the Lady Bird Lake stage Austin, 2024.

Still, we couldn’t help but notice that the underlying focus was no longer on grand visions. Instead, this year was all about the essentials: finding specific use cases for AI, making projects actually work, and using emerging tech to put creatives in the driver’s seat.

Back to basics: creatives take the reins from tech

Artificial intelligence and emerging tech were still major topics at SXSW, but less in the sense of “this is going to destroy everything” and more in the sense of “how can we actually employ this?” Since last year, the focus has shifted from theory to practice.

In the “Storytelling in the Age of Virtual Worlds, Web3 & AI” panel with Journey Director Alice Britton, the discussion remained solidly focused on how AI can better serve storytelling — and not the other way around. We weren’t hearing conversations about building a Roblox activation for the sake of it; instead, everyone was sharing concrete strategies to keep people engaged in exciting and authentic ways. 

Brenda Chen, Ian Daly, Alice Britton (Journey), Vince Kadlubek (Meow Wolf).

This trend closely parallels what we’ve been seeing at Journey. Over the past six months, clients have shifted from being afraid they’re behind the curve to wanting a more strategic, focused adoption of AI to support their organizational ethos.

Part of the reason for this shift is that the growing accessibility of AI has removed some of the mystique and made it more of an everyday tool. Another reason is that we’ve all realized AI isn’t going to save the world — at least not without significant human skill, knowledge, and labor at every step of the way. It’s the human touch that’s going to bring our projects and initiatives to life. And it’s human connections and imagination that, with the right tech behind them, are going to be our most powerful forces for transformation.

Moving from theory to practice

Brooke Hopper (Adobe), Eric Shamlin (Media Monks), Me! (Journey), Adam Baskin (Tool of North America.)

My panel, titled “Gen AI – From Experimentation to Implementation” and organized by Adobe as part of the SoDA Series Live, offered a deeper dive into AI’s practical applications with fellow panelists Eric Shamlin of Media.Monks and Adam Baskin of Tool of NA, we discussed how to position generative AI within our studios, agencies, and production processes.

Gen AI isn’t well-developed enough to directly produce final assets without human intervention yet. (Think the Midjourney six-fingered humans or the ChatGPT captions that need a final round of editing.) Instead, production is a mix of automation and multiple important layers of human iterations and adjustments.

But that’s not to say that AI isn’t useful in other ways. Because it offers shortcuts to so many intermediary, time-consuming tasks, it can help us get wilder in our brainstorming and bolder in our pitches. It allows us to pursue the things we never have time to explore — the creative ideas that usually languish in a notebook — and visualize ideas more clearly to get clients on board. It can accelerate prototyping and storyboarding, and it can help scale assets, easily spinning up content in different sizes, variations, or languages.

For specific tools, some of the unsung heroes that we use at Journey include Perplexity AI and Eleven Labs. Perplexity is a conversational search engine that includes in-text citations and tailored search results, and that can help users get surprisingly granular with follow-up questions. Meanwhile, Eleven Labs creates custom and synthetic voices as well as voice clones with increasingly natural intonation, which has been particularly helpful for scaling audio projects.

Regardless of which tools we use, it’s important to remember that AI won’t replace but rather augment what humans already do well. What’s more, AI will only succeed when its progress is firmly human-driven.

Unleashing the robots: our Skylar collab with KPMG

In collaboration with KPMG’s SXSW Pitch Competition, Journey built a Gen AI-powered podcast experience with an AI host, “Skylar,” who interviewed festival attendees. To take part in the installation, podcast guests scanned a QR code, input a bit of personal information on a landing page, and chose one of three conversation themes: leadership, future-forward, or lessons learned.

Constance showing off our Gen AI-powered podcast experience with an AI host, “Skylar,”

From there, attendees would step into a transparent audio booth with podcast-style headphones and microphones for a five-minute conversation with Skylar’s avatar. The experience allowed guests to be the star of their own show, while still prompting them to think more deeply about their startups, business projects, or leadership experiences.

We programmed Skylar very intentionally to have boldness and confidence as her leading “personality traits.” The goal was for her to ask challenging questions, and the results were impressive. Over and over, the guests commented on how interesting Skylar’s inquiries were and how her questions helped them hone their ideas and their startup pitches. Everyone was coming out of the audio booth smiling, because it was so unexpected to have a deep conversation with an AI model.

With Skylar, as with other AI models, the human touch was critical for bringing ideas to life. Our designers provided all the framework for a smooth and engaging visitor experience, and the guests provided the content itself. There would have been no podcast without the human counterpart.

The same was true for the real-time fairytale at the SXSW XR Experience Exhibition. For this installation, the designers provided the score and voiceovers and trained the AI model on a particular artist’s work, but the guests added their own spin to the fairytale by giving prompts. The success of these installations proves the usefulness of Gen AI as a tool to support and not replace human endeavors—as long as those human-driven interactions remain at the core of the design.

Leaving Austin: takeaways for the rest of 2024

For all the corporate mumbo jumbo we hear about the intersection of creativity and emerging tech, SXSW still remains a great place for innovators to meet up and concoct new ideas. Where else could we catch a film premiere in the morning, a rodeo in the afternoon, and an Austrian-Brazilian grunge-pop show at night? Where better to watch motion capture artists perform in virtual worlds, then walk into a cafe and catch a psychedelic funk set?

We left feeling inspired and invigorated. The focus was overwhelmingly on how we can use emerging tech to empower our creative projects and initiatives — moving from the hype to the practicalities is a good sign that we’re here for the long haul. As an artist and creator, I was deeply encouraged by the overwhelming optimism both from SXSW and from the people who are working with AI every day.

The future looks bright — and soon, it may even have the right number of fingers.

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