SXSW: The Swiss Presence in Austin

Every year in Austin, Texas, thought-leaders in tech, science, art, and innovation gather at the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival to exchange ideas and demonstrate the latest developments in their industries. Switzerland has long been a leader in design, engineering, and social policy, and the country’s strong presence at this year’s SXSW exemplifies how they have continued that innovation into the modern technological renaissance. As a major step in the ongoing Swiss Touch campaign, Swiss entities presented some of the most awe-inducing projects and ideas at the festival, proving that Switzerland is a major force in emerging technologies.

Digital Fabrication (listen)

The Swiss presence at SXSW began on Saturday March 10th with a panel discussion from swissnex Boston on Digital Fabrication that asked the question, “Will robots build the future?”. The panel, moderated by celebrated design editor Aniina Koivu, Head of Theory Master at ECAL, explored the explosion in manufacturing and design technologies including the opportunities created by 3D printing, procedurally-generated design processes, and new self-assembling materials. The panel included renown Swiss product designer Christophe Guberan, a graduate of ECAL who has garnered widespread attention through his collaboration with fellow panelist Skylar Tibbits at MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab. Together, the pair are pioneering new materials and fabrication techniques that push the possibilities of assembly and construction forward at a rapid and exciting pace in order to produce objects. They impressed the crowd with video and images of their programmable materials and Rapid Liquid Printing process.

Also on the panel was Benjamin Dillenburger, Principal Investigator in the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) Digital Fabrication and Assistant Professor for Digital Building Technologies at ETH Zurich. Benjamin introduced the crowd to procedurally-generated design, explaining that “The software is able to generate millions of forms on its own and then select the most attractive form based on user reactions.” The stunning images of the Digital Grotesque II project the software created introduced festival-goers to the incredible fabrication possibilities being developed in Switzerland. The fascinating 3d printed structure Digital Grotesque II is a commission by the renowned Centre Pompidou in Paris, and has premiered as part of the museum’s exhibition “Mutations-Création / Imprimer le monde” in 2017.

To conclude, Skylar Tibbits and Christophe Guberan presented the crowd with the though-provoking mantra that has guided much of their latest work- “Today we program machines. Tomorrow we program materials.”

Humanizing Autonomy (listen)

Sophie Lamparter, (previously with swissnex San Francisco) founded DART,  a testing lab bringing together Design, Art, Research and Technology to build clever human-machine interfaces. She hosted a conversation with Maya Pindeus, CEO of the UK-based startup Humanizing Autonomy, Alexander Makowsky, Futurist at Daimler, and Liesl Capper Yearlsey, CEO of Akin, a research startup working on the next generation of AI.

Among many SXSW panels on AI, this conversation brought up a new and necessary angle: The human perspective. In the past, the focus was on how to make AI technically work. A good example is the self-driving car- better cameras, sensors, computer vision and machine learning enabled the car to read the environment and navigate. However, there is still little attention on the interactions between these autonomous systems and pedestrians on the street. We humans need to understand the cars’ intentions- they need to be visible and communicated to us so that we can trust them. It is also important to think about how a car might solve more complex problems, like interpreting our body movement to anticipate our actions- when we are about to cross the street, waving down a taxi, or just talking on the phone. All of these questions led to a long conversation about today’s limitations on machine learning and if there is the potential in the future for AI that actually learns, rather than simply labeling and categorizing.

Arts at CERN (listen)

The next day, swissnex Boston presented a demonstration called “Decrypting the Universe: Science and Art at CERN”. On stage, sat James Beacham, a world-leading particle physicist, and Laura Couto Rosado an artist and designer based in Geneva. The two spent three months together exploring the techniques physicists use to extract complex patterns from the universe and the artistic patterns that their data might inspire. This initiative at CERN, one of the foremost scientific institutions in the world, showcased the possibilities that materialize from non-traditional collaborations in Switzerland.

The discussion from James’ scientific point of view, coupled with Laura’s incredible eye for design and patterns, created a new lens for the crowd in Austin to observe and understand the secrets of the big bang. It was the first time that many in the crowd had been introduced to such a revolutionary science/art partnership and the discussion opened their eyes to the innovation and progress happening at CERN as a result of these unique collaborations.

Drone Swarms in Art (listen)

In the third and final SXSW panel from swissnex Boston, artists from the Zurich-based Verity Studios presented the advances they are making in bringing drone swarm technology to the world of art and performance. The panel from the world’s first Drone Costume Designer, Léa Pereyre, and Verity Studios Creative Director Bill Keays, surprised the packed audience with dazzling videos of drone swarms. As described in an op-ed published about the event in swissinfo, this was a totally new application of drone technology for most in the crowd and it left many of them amazed at the capabilities of the studio. Bill and Léa shared their unique collaborative process, where technological innovation and artistic vision combine to accelerate rapid development of drone art. At the end, they assured the crowd that this is only the very beginning. As Bill Keays said, “We are living in the stone age of drone shows.”

Mental Work (listen)

swissnex San Francisco also headed to SXSW to discuss how dismantling boundaries between art and science can help us imagine, understand, and prepare for the transformational potential of Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCI).

Sheila Fakurnejad hosted a panel with BCI researcher Ricardo Chavarriaga and experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats, two co-creators of the Mental Work exhibition: a global, public neuroscience research experiment where participants control industrial machinery using only their thoughts and BCI technology.

BCI enables machines to read and interpret data from brain activity and transmit it to an external device, which can interpret those impulses into useful feedback. These interfaces can be applied in a variety of ways, most notably in allowing those without physical control of their limbs to control mobility devices, such as a wheelchair.

The Mental Work exhibition brings BCI technology from EPFL into a gallery setting, where visitors can move industrial-era gears and machinery with their thoughts. The EPFL ArtLab in Lausanne put these machines to work in October 2017, designing the first factory dedicated to what Keats calls the “Cognitive Revolution.”

“It becomes a way to experience a possible future, and to connect it to the past,” said Keats. The machines “serve as philosophical instruments,” that “allow us to become better capable of deciding what sort of future we might want.”

Thinking through the machines at an early stage is a way to help guide conversations about the technology, but also about what collaborations between artists and researchers can achieve. By bringing artists into the fold so early, researchers can glean greater insights into unpredictable uses of BCI that are difficult to envision in a laboratory.

“Negative outcomes arise when we deploy technologies into scenarios that haven’t been envisioned yet,” said Chavarriage. New spaces allow for a wider range of possible failures — and can help to better anticipate potential problems.

By bringing emerging tech into unlikely spaces — and gathering data about how people interact with the tech they find there — it opens a broader conversation that helps us to imagine what might be possible in the future.

 

Switzerland x Austin

The swiss entities at SXSW partnered to end their presence at the festival with a large showcase and party at Palm on Sixth in the heart of downtown Austin. Swiss startup Apelab showed their popular interactive AR story “Ko’Ko’s Curse”, delighting attendees who mingled with other leaders in Swiss tech while enjoying cheese courtesy of Emmi USA and chocolate from Lindt. Another startup, Imverse, showcased their demo “Elastic Time”, a mixed reality interactive documentary about space-time that blew the minds of many in the crowd.  Together, these two companies brought the reality of Swiss innovation in the virtual/augmented/mixed reality world.

Following the demos, the crowd gathered for a live performance from OY, the duo of keyboarder, multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Swiss-Ghanaian Joy Frempong and producer-percussionist Lleluja-Ha.

 

Conclusion

After the demo-ing, dancing, and drinks, the various entities that made up the Switzerland team at this year’s SXSW reflected on their impact at the conference. These partners all came together to represent the country and its innovative spirit in an energetic and buzzy way. Conference-goers were left with a strong impression of Switzerland as a country that sits on the cutting edge of this new technological renaissance. Weather its particle physics, neuro-tech, digital fabrication, drone swarms, art and architecture, or emerging VR platforms, it’s clear that the Swiss are ones to watch for.

Thanks to our panels’ partners: ECALNCCR Digital Fabrication,ETHZ Digital Building TechnologiesMIT Self-Assembly Lab, Arts at CERNVerity Studiosswissnex San Francisco,Mental Work, DART 17, and Presence Switzerland.

Our Swiss Showcase event was possible thanks to the support of: swissnex BostonSan FranciscoPro HelvetiaPresence SwitzerlandSwiss TouchDART 17Engagement MigrosGeneva International Film Festival, Lindt and Emmi USA, with special thanks to Apelab, Imverse, Oy and the High Beam team!

Swiss Touch is a platform for all to engage in forward-looking conversations to generate new ideas. Learn more about Swiss Touch at www.swisstouchusa.org and join the conversation with #SwissTouch!