During the COVID pandemic it has, unfortunately, become common for film festivals and trade shows to go “virtual.” They rely on Zoom, Google Meet, or specialized software to present their traditionally in-person events over the Internet. SXSW Online 2021 has upped the game with XR tools.
“XR” encompasses VR (virtual reality), AR (augmented reality), and anything else that uses computing to enhance what you are seeing into extended reality. These tools, plus the re-creation of Austin neighborhoods and buildings in a virtual world populated by attendee avatars, set SXSW apart. SXSW employed VRChat software, running on the Steam gaming platform, so the environment could be viewed through VR goggles or on a PC.
If you’ve ever attended SXSW, or any of the other festivals for which Austin is known, you probably have memories of Congress Avenue and the iconic Paramount Theatre. SXSW computer artists turned both of these, as well as several other venues, into eye-popping virtual worlds. I have attended many events in the Paramount Theatre, beginning in 2012. As I directed my avatar around the virtual version, I felt totally at home and it was so right I found myself thinking things like, “Oh, that’s where I annoyed Richard Linklater.”
Undiminished, Yet Faster
Virtual SXSW has as many films, music groups, and special events as past real-life festivals, with a couple of important differences.
Before being forced into a virtual configuration, SXSW typically lasted 10 to 12 days. The last day often featured a softball game for the staff. This year’s XR version fits everything into just five days. (And, as far as I know, no softball game.) They packed in so much, it took me longer to plan my itinerary this year than in real-life years.
This change also opened up SXSW to viewers from around the world. Most of the events and films could be replayed and some will remain available to attendees into April.
Celebrities, Music, Laughter
The online event includes over 600 hours of films, music, training, networking, and comedy. As with past events, celebrities populate the schedule. From the entertainment world, attendees will be able to see Willie Nelson, Carole King, Bill Hader and Ava DuVernay. Government reps speaking include Pete Buttigieg and Stacey Abrams. From the tech world, Jack Dorsey and Mark Cuban will drop in.
SXSW normally includes comedy events, and due to the virtualization, live and pre-recorded comedy will stream from comedy clubs across the nation.
Even if you can’t virtually drop in to this year’s event, podcasts will continue the fun. SXSW Sessions broadcasts weekly through Spotify. The podcasts, recorded live at the event in Austin, include keynotes, panels with audience Q&A, and featured speakers with selections from tech, film, music and beyond. Sample podcasts can be found here.
You’ll find more info at the main SXSW site along with links to its presence on almost every kind of social media you can think of. You can watch a preview of this year’s experience below.