Dispatches from SXSW Interactive 2014

SciFri is in Austin to check out the latest in innovation.

SciFri staff members are in Austin to check out the innovative ideas erupting out of SXSW Interactive. Here are a few highlights (and come back for more; also follow our Instagram stream):

A Virtual Conversation with Edward Snowden (Monday, March 10, 2014)

His head against a backdrop professing the words “We the People,” Edward Snowden chatted, via a Google hangout (the irony), with Ben Wizner and Christopher Soghoian from the American Civil Liberties Union about Internet privacy and security, and encryption. What can we, the public, do to protect ourselves, a viewer asked? While Snowden said it’s a complicated subject, he made some recommendations, including full disk encryption to protect our hardware; networking encryption, such as SSL; and Tor, a mixed-router network that “allows users to perform web tasks such as navigating with a browser, publishing sites, and communicating with others while remaining anonymous,” according to USA Today. Encrypting both our hardware and our network communications makes mass surveillance very difficult, said Snowden. Added Soghoian, if we increasingly use encryption services, it will become more expensive for the NSA to keep tabs on everyone: “The goal here is to make it so that they cannot spy on innocent people because they can.”


The Maker Age; Enightend Views on Science & Art (Monday, March 10, 2014)

Mythbuster’s Adam Savage took to the stage to drive home the inextricable ties between science and art.

“Every piece of the scientific method requires creativity” – #adamsavage #mythbusters #SXSW keynote

— Science Friday (@scifri) March 10, 2014

“Art and science are how we converse about who we are and what we’re doing” – #adamsavage #mythbusters #SXSW keynote

— Science Friday (@scifri) March 10, 2014

“Science is for everybody” – #AdamSavage #mythbusters #SXSW keynote — Science Friday (@scifri) March 10, 2014


Animal Madness (Sunday, March 9, 2014) A range of animals can suffer from various mental illnesses. In the case of our pets, we often treat them with drugs akin to the ones we use to treat ourselves. By 2015, the U.S. market for pet pharmaceuticals is projected to be $9.25 billion, said Laurel Braitman, the author of Animal Madness and a speaker at a session by the same name—and that doesn’t include the drugs we pick up from regular pharmacies instead of the vet. Below is cartoonist and session attendee Caroline Chapple’s creative take on the session.

  Techie Trekkies (Sunday, March 9, 2014)

From left to right: The original series tricorder, the next generation tricorder, and the Scanadu, in two colors.

Trekkies remember the Starfleet tricorder, a portable sensing device. While we haven’t quite replicated that remarkable invention, we’ve made some strides. Scanadu is a new medical device (it isn’t yet commercially available) that senses a person’s vital signs, including heart rate, blood pressure, and temperature, and it sends the data, via Bluetooth, to a smartphone. Who might want a portable device like this? Anyone who has an elderly parent she wants to keep an eye on, for instance—have Mom take her vitals using Scanadu and send ’em on over to you for monitoring.

Scanadu co-founder Sam De Brouwer demonstrates how to use the device—she holds it up to her head and tracks the readings on her smart phone.


Keynote Speaker: Neil deGrasse Tyson (Saturday, March 8, 2014) Neil deGrasse Tyson’s reboot of “Cosmos” premieres Sunday night. To gear up for the show, he chatted with SXSWers about space exploration, inspiring your kids to experiment, and some of the public’s misconceptions about the world around us (e.g., the sun is not yellow, but some think it is!).


Space exploration is a long-term investment in the health and wealth of a nation, says Neil deGrasse Tyson @neiltyson #SXSW14

— Science Friday (@scifri) March 8, 2014

The first trillionaire will be the person who mines an asteroid, says Neil deGrasse Tyson. Rare earth metals! @neiltyson #SXSW14 — Science Friday (@scifri) March 8, 2014


“I love me some Europa” (and if life forms were found there, we’d call them Europeans) – Neil deGrasse Tyson @neiltyson #SXSW14 — Science Friday (@scifri) March 8, 2014

“Science is becoming mainstream” – Neil deGrasse Tyson @neiltyson #SXSW14

— Science Friday (@scifri) March 8, 2014

Drones in Sports (Saturday, March 8, 2014)

At the “Drones in Sports” session, Ryan Baker, CEO of Arch Aerial, chatted about how some sports use drones to capture sweeping aerial views and short panning action shots. He sees potential for using these flying machines for instructional purposes—say, coaches could show their high school football teams drone footage to help their players improve their game.


Wearable Technologies (Saturday, March 8, 2014)

While Google Glass is a common sight at SXSW, an Accelerator panel at SXSW showcased start-up technology companies with wearable technologies that move beyond the conspicuous head gear. Developers are focusing on how to make wearables user- and fashion-friendly. The Nymi wristband (in photo above) taps into the user’s unique heart rhythm to unlock passcodes and create the ultimate personalized password. The fashion brand Jon Lou, lead by a team of MIT engineers, integrates fuel cells into hand bags to charge devices you’re carrying inside. And the Kiwi Move weighs only one ounce, but packs in an accelerometer, gyroscope, barometer, thermometer, microphone, and 2 GB of storage to track and analyze your daily gestures, behaviors and movements.


Robot Revolution (Saturday, March 8, 2014)

Click on the video below to watch R2-D2 in action.

What comes to mind when you think of a robot? R2-D2, perhaps? People have a tendency to think of robots as human- or animal-like, said Carl Bass, president and CEO of AutoDesk, Inc., who led a session on “The Robot Revolution.” But “there are robots all around us” that don’t fit the R2 mold. For instance, San Francisco’s 40-year-old BART rail system could be considered a robot, said Bass—it detects curves as it whizzes along its track, and it “knows” when to stop when there’s train traffic ahead.

Meet the Writers

About Julie Leibach

Julie Leibach is a freelance science journalist and the former managing editor of online content for Science Friday.

About Alexa Lim

Alexa Lim was a senior producer for Science Friday. Her favorite stories involve space, sound, and strange animal discoveries.