If the tech world had to choose one word to describe itself, it would probably choose “innovation.” It is the buzziest of buzzwords at any tech conference and SXSW Interactive is no exception. They even have an award for it – the SXSW Interactive Innovation Awards, which “celebrate and honor the most exciting tech developments in the connected world.” Sixty-five finalist projects across 13 categories were put on display during a showcase before the awards ceremony (disclaimer: Porter Novelli client Not Impossible was one of them). I took the opportunity to see what we could learn about how the industry is defining innovation this year. Here’s what I saw:

  • Emphasis on human impact: By my count, at least nine of the 13 category winners were technologies that addressed a real human need, from making recruiting more fair for the disabled to getting kids excited about going to museums to making prosthetic legs accessible. Many, perhaps most, tech companies claim that their innovations are changing the world but at SX we saw companies innovating to change the world for the better, and being rewarded for it. This sent an interesting signal that, at least in this context, to be recognized as innovative your tech had to be on point – and at least somewhat human-centric.
  • Escape from reality: no surprise, AR and VR were everywhere – not just at the Innovation Awards, but on the show floor, sessions and off-site brand experiences as well. It was thrilling to see the myriad ways these new mediums are being used for storytelling, music, tourism (I made a pit stop in Australia during my time in Austin) and more. Content creators are innovating all over these spaces. What still seems to be missing, however, is the hardware piece – a way to experience these wonderful augmented and virtual worlds without equipment that is goofy looking, expensive, massive or some combination thereof. There was a hardware finalist in the VR/AR Innovation Awards category but it was designed for developers; here’s hoping we see similar innovations for content consumers next year.
  • Intuitive UX: One thing that struck me most as I wandered the booths at the finalist showcase was how intuitive all of the experiences were; you could get the basic gist of what you were supposed to do with or get out of the technology just wandering through the room. Pass by Holoplot’s speakers and it sounded amazing. The manikin arms on DuoSkin’s table had really cool temporary tattoos that controlled iPads. The 3D printers printed things in 3D. Here’s a cool learning toy, there’s a tiny medical kit. The technology behind all of these experiences required plenty of explanation. But the layperson could easily understand the potential benefit, use of and/or need for each project. Outwardly simple, inwardly complex – only the truly innovative can achieve that balance.

Innovation was alive and well at SXSW 2017 – it was inspiring, to say the least. You can check out all of the finalists and winners here.