SXSW builds a virtual Austin
Festivalgoers will have a new playground to explore SXSW in the virtual world, with the conference having built a digital replica of Austin.
On Tuesday, the festival organizers revealed the online world that includes Austin landmarks like The Paramount Theatre, Mohawk, the Contemporary Austin, Empire Control Room & Garage and other downtown venues visitors typically see walking along Congress Avenue. The SXSW Online XR world is one way the festival is trying to offer attendees attractions while they still can’t physically visit Texas. SXSW is set to take place March 16-20.
The virtual Austin looks a little like “Animal Crossing,” the expansive online game world. SXSW says that all pass holders will have entry into the VR space, where some of the programs will also be available.
SXSW Online XR “will showcase live panels, meetups, special events, a selection of 360-degree videos from the Virtual Cinema program, as well as 2D video feeds of SXSW programming,” the festival organizers said in Tuesday’s announcement.
Conference organizers worked with Paris-based VRrOOm and other digital artists to create the online space. SXSW released its conference schedule this week, which includes speakers like Georgia political star Stacey Abrams, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, and legendary musician Willie Nelson. The festival typically runs for 10 days, but has been condensed this year because it is being handled remotely.
SXSW costs $249 to attend this year, a markdown from previous years when attendees had to pay up to $1,350.
COVID-19 has affected the usual flow of industry events like SXSW, CES and Cannes, which were all forced to adapt to virtual settings. Last year, SXSW was the first major industry conference upended by the pandemic shutdowns.
Since then, conferences have been coming up with their own unique ways of presenting their lineups of speakers, panels and exhibits. For instance, in January, CES worked with Microsoft to build a digital venue for the electronics showcase. CES organizers had considered a VR component to the show but decided against it, opting instead for an online video hub, which also enabled attendees to chat, comment and schedule meetings.
In Tuesday’s announcement, Blake Kammerdiener, SXSW’s XR and film programmer, said the organizers wanted to create a “virtual space that honors Austin, and a few of the venues that we are gutted to not be using this year.”
To participate in the Austin XR world, attendees need a VRChat account, where they also get to build an avatar. VRChat is a virtual reality platform that syncs with headsets like Oculus. It does not require a VR headset though to participate.
“One of the most important things you can do is meet with people, hang out with friends and really have those serendipitous run-ins that might happen at any SXSW,” Kammerdiener said in an email to Ad Age. “In terms of brands this year, we focused on a few Austin venues that we worked with and art from some wonderful artists instead of having a heavy brand presence.”