Day 5: Even the ideas are Bigger in Texas! SXSW takes us from VR to Music to Neuroscience and Beyond

Nonny de la Peña, dubbed the ‘Godmother of Virtual Reality’ gave a powerful Convergence Keynote that took us on a rollercoaster ride from laughter to tears and back again. Nonny shared the story of how she became a pioneer of VR and AR, committed to telling the stories ‘you could remember with your entire body, not just your mind’. The ability to put someone right in the middle of a real story, to increase empathy and shift attitudes, has led her to put serious issues under the spotlight; from homelessness in the LGBTQ community, to the defense of women’s reproductive rights and bringing attention to climate change with the film ‘Greenland Melting’. Whilst many say that AR has greater opportunity to scale than VR, Nonny explained that VR and AR are developing together. Those who know how to produce one can easily adapt the content for the other. The two drivers of VR adoption will be mass distributed through 5G computing, and of course content. When asked for more predictions she said it was about volume. ‘You don’t experience your world as flat, so why would you want your entertainment to be flat?’ In the future, websites won’t be flat and nor will video. People are already scanning 3D images of themselves and soon, they’ll be uploading those avatar images into videos and games.

Moving from VR for journalism to VR for brands, I went to check out a OMD’s Zero Code Director Dario Raciti and SuperData Resarch’s Stephanie Lllamas talk entitled Beyond Brand Impressions: Assessing VR’s True ROI. Dario and Stephanie shared their thoughts on what it takes for brands to successful enter the VR space. Dario explained that the cost of entry into VR for the consumer is still high, so it’s critical that brands focus solely on being entertaining. It’s simply asking too much to try and get people to buy something. The goal has to be about delighting them. Stephanie went on to share the different types of VR content that millennial men in the US want versus millennial women. Men want VR content featuring athletes whilst women want to see favorite celebrities (24%) artists (24%), and fashion designers (23%). Ultimately, VR is about tricking the brain to think you’re somewhere else and experimentation is key. It’s early days so you have to be prepared to make lots of mistakes and learn…that’s the fun of it.

Sticking with brains and what makes them tick, it wouldn’t be SXSW if there wasn’t a session or two on neuroscience. Music and the Brain: How Sound Becomes Pleasurable was an excellent session explaining how our pursuit of dopamine, which is released as a result of food, sex, and drugs also applies to music. That’s because music is comprised of a sequence of notes that result in tension and resolution, and it’s the anticipation of the rise and fall of that music that triggers the release of dopamine. Deep learning is now being used to find the structure in complex music such as Bach’s chorales, and AI is being used increasingly as a tool for musicians to create new melodies based upon the surrounding melodies. Where it gets really exciting is when we consider that AI may be able to discover patterns and structures that have not yet been thoughts of, thus pushing art forms into new directions. But here’s a word of caution that comes from a recent experiment that asked people what they thought of a piece of music that was created by a human versus AI; people overwhelming preferred the human-generated piece. So, if you’re going to use AI as creative tool, make sure you clarify your intention as an artist because we really do care about your journey.

Finally, something I’m passionate about; music mapping. I’ve been fascinated by the idea of mapping sonic territories for a while so I was thrilled to see Sonic DNA: How Technology Fuels Creativity at the Trade Show. Professor Michael Oehler from the University Osnabrueck and Ric Scheuss, CCO of TRO Music outlined how a machine learning algorithm can now measure the emotional attributes of different songs, for different audiences, in different markets, and then match them to brands based upon their brand personality. The level of detail that the algorithm goes into in analysing each song, from timbre texture, to rhythmic context, and pitch content was fascinating to see, and the end result which is being able to map a song according to your social and psychological profile of a target audience is so exciting. The opportunities for brands to factor in the audio territory when communicating their identity is significant.

On that note, my time at SXSW draws to a close. It has been another awesome year of learning, fun discovery, and perfect tacos. They say everything is bigger in Texas, and that goes for the smart stuff too. Until next time….


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Chrissie Hanson

OMD Global Chief Strategy Officer

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