Keep SXSW weird
Austin is already a weird place, but during South by Southwest, the weirdness grows exponentially. Big brands thirsty for attention and tiny startups looking to pitch the hot new app compete to see who can capture the SXSW audience of techies and creatives. The brand presence was more subdued this year than in the past, but that didn’t make the stunts any less bananas. Here are the 8 that made me stop in my tracks.
Handmaids in the streets
There’s really nothing creepier than walking down the street and running into a passel of handmaids muttering, “Praise be,” in unison. Some SXSW attendees didn’t connect the dots between Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s insanely good and highly relevant novel The Handmaid’s Tale with the flock of ladies in red, but it was the perfect stunt nonetheless.
"Los Pollos Hermanos"
Bob Odenkirk had a huge presence at SXSW as a featured speaker and after-hours comedy performer, but if you didn’t catch a glimpse of Odenkirk in Austin, the next best thing was a meal at Los Pollos Hermanos. The fictional chicken spot from Breaking Bad took over a local restaurant to promote the third season of Better Call Saul and sling fried chicken to hungry SXSW attendees. We heard the place ran out of chicken and was only serving French fries, but it’s the thought that counts.
Car vending machine
When I first saw Carvana's colossal "car vending machine," I had no idea why this company I've never heard of would put a car in a vending machine. But it turns out that what seems like a ridiculous stunt is an actual used-car dealership with a location in Austin. Carvana really does operate car vending machines, though they're not exactly like the one than the one that popped up across the street from the Austin Convention Center. Instead, you pick out a car to buy online, then head to Carvana's dealership to pick it up by inserting a coin in a vending machine. That triggers the car's descent in a glass elevator. This is a totally bizarre way to buy a car, but I would've never known about it had I not seen this gigantic vending machine with a car inside, so. Kudos, Carvana.
Ride the wave
Walking down Congress Avenue in downtown Austin, you typically see tall office buildings and cool bars. During SXSW, you also run into a giant wave-riding pool, thanks to TNT’s Animal Kingdom. The show set up a FlowRider surf simulator and invited folks off the street to ride the waves (or just have some beers and watch other people fall over). TNT even provided bathing suits and wetsuits because they expected people to come to a convention unprepared for surfing. They were right on the money.
Pimp your ride
Google came to SXSW with two experiences for conference-goers: A demo of the Google Jacquard collaboration with Levi’s, and a #myAndroid truck to mimic the effects of the #MyAndroid Taste Test feature it just launched. Taste Test works by asking you a few questions to come up with the perfect combination of launchers, wallpapers, and icon packs. The truck was decked out in LED lights that you could customize just like a phone. It wasn’t the weirdest thing at SXSW, not by a long shot, but it was a strange way to promote a small Android feature.
The White Buffalo
The first thing many of us saw as we headed west toward the Austin Convention Center was a giant white buffalo with huge horns. “WTF is that?” I said under my breath as my cab cruised down Cesar Chavez. Then I saw the signage: American Gods. It’s a new show from Starz based on the book by Neil Gaiman, and it premieres next month, which means it’s prime time for a SXSW tie-in. The buffalo wasn’t exactly an interactive experience, but Starz did invite people to sit near the furry animal and charge their devices. Or pray to it—whatever. Only at South by Southwest.
I didn’t see any actual exotic dancers on the streets of Austin, but Bravo did send a flash mob of 60-odd half-naked revellers downtown to promote its new reality TV show, Stripped. The hired models went out in the rain with transparent umbrellas and the hashtag #Stripped emblazoned on their stomachs to drum up interest for the show, which makes contestants abandon everything they own for 21 days. The stunt raised some eyebrows and made headlines, but we’ll see if anyone actually tunes in.
Robots in conversation
Will robots ever become indistinguishable from humans, as sci-fi films would suggest? Maybe, but we’re not exactly close—at least not if the creepy robot conversation I saw at SXSW is any indication. Osaka University brought two robots to Austin to show off technology that powers robot-to-robot conversations. Eventually that technology can be used to support human-to-robot conversations, but it looks like this is still in its early days. The robots spoke in, well, robot voices, and their conversation was stilted and about a totally unnatural topic, urban gardening vs. rural farming. I’m intrigued by where this technology could go, but this demo was the creepiest thing I saw at SXSW.