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The Spillover

SXSW Interactive loosens its belt, expands to 14 venues

By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Jan. 27, 2012

The South by Southwest Interactive Festival may not be as loud as the music festival or as red-carpet-friendly as SXSW Film, but there is no doubt that it's the big dog – so big that this year it will stretch across 14 Downtown campuses, from the Palmer Events Center to the AT&T Conference Center. Festival Event Director Hugh Forrest explained, "It's certainly a big change from having everything at the Austin Convention Center, but for better or worse, we've outgrown that space."

Conference regulars, fear not: The convention center remains the hub, but there will be additional panels at many Downtown hotels. Each campus is themed, so digital reporters will probably spend most of their time at the Sheraton for the Journalism & Online Content strand, while experts in lifestyles and sports will want to hang out at the stately Driskill. Forrest said, "The idea is that if you are interested in one particular topic, you can go to that one particular campus and find that kind of content."

That thematic approach sounds like a nice idea, but Forrest admitted that it creates new problems, especially since there is "a lot of bleed over" in topics. Cue headaches for his schedulers. He pondered, "If you have a panel on how social media can help your business, does that go on the social track or the business track?" The biggest challenge will be retaining the sense of cross-pollination between specialties so that Web developers don't just hang with other Web developers but also rub elbows with filmmakers and social scientists. "This campus structure in some ways diminishes those kind of opportunities," said Forrest, "so we definitely encourage people to go to campuses that they're less familiar with."

For panel-hoppers, most campuses are within easy walking distance of each other, and there will be regular shuttle buses. For anyone worried about losing a seat, the conference will also simulcast the big keynote speeches, starting with The Onion's Digital Director Baratunde Thurston on Saturday, March 10. Other keynote speakers include cyborg anthropologist and TED regular Amber Case and Code for America founder Jennifer Pahlka. However, the big "get" has to be Ray Kurzweil. Aside from being one of futurism's philosopher kings, his creative fingerprints are on tech turning points like flatbed scanners and speech-recognition software. Time for another SXSW innovation: With Kurzweil's son Ethan hosting his own panel, Forrest said, "It's the first father-son duo we've had."

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