At SXSW in March, eager crowds undeterred by torrential rainstorms made their way to Austin for the annual celebration of all things tech, culture and ground-breaking innovation.

While big-name speakers like Trevor Noah and Kara Swisher drew huge lines at the conference, thanks to a feast of sessions across 25 themed tracks, attendees still faced choice overload. Naturally, AI loomed large over the schedule, but a wider conversation explored the ways in which advances in technology could help us become more human.

Here are our highlights for SXSW 2024:

AI Supercycle

A technology "supercycle" of accelerated progress is getting underway, ushering in a new era of transformation. At the launch session for Future Today Institute’s 2024 Emerging Trends report, CEO Amy Webb explained that this is powered by not one, but three general purpose technologies that are converging: connectables, biotechnology and of course, AI. And it’s this convergence that will supercharge innovation.

Already, the pace of development “is so fast and so vast, our mental models can’t capture it,” said futurist Ian Beacraft noting that an average Tuesday in February alone saw the launch of three new AI models (Open AI’s Sora, Google’s Gemini 1.5 and Meta’s V-JEPA). Progress will only accelerate from here, but if we get it right, it could unleash “a new era of abundance for humanity, like the second coming of the Industrial Revolution,” said Amazon’s head of artificial general intelligence, Vishal Sharma.

Emerging developments under discussion included multimodal AI, which now goes beyond text inputs to gather streams of data via “senses" like vision, sound and even smell, to unlock deeper insight and utility. Embodied AI (that is integrated into a physical body), is driving thinking in this space, according to Sharma.

Apollo at SXSW with Yemi AD copy
Apptronik's humanoid robot Apollo with multi-disciplinary creator Yemi A.D.

Humanoid robots are seeing a renaissance as a result. Austin-based Apptronik’s Apollo robot (above) made an appearance at a fireside chat alongside company co-founder Jeff Cardenas. Robots like Apollo are being touted as a solution to global labor shortages because they can easily fit into our infrastructure thanks to their human form. Cardenas predicts “a Cambrian explosion of robots" and says in ten years every home will have one.

As noted in our CES roundup, AI will soon acquire agency, with LLMs (Large Language Models) evolving into LAMs (or Large Action Models), that are able to execute a sequence of tasks. Jake Brody of Accenture Song conjured a future where AI agents engage and negotiate on people’s behalf, including with brands, asking: “How do you retain brand essence in an age of agent-to-agent conversation?"

The AI-Enabled Workplace

AI might be supercharging progress, but it’s rapidly becoming table stakes as a technology. Ian Beacraft cautioned that “those of you with AI-powered in your company name, you’ve got about six weeks for that to matter.” Instead of thinking tech-first he said, businesses would be better served fixing our broken systems for work, and reinventing and optimising their processes before applying AI.

Regarding the future workplace, he said “jobs are dead but work is not" – meaning that organisations will be skill and task-oriented instead, staffed by creative generalists who will be able to rapidly pick up adjacent skills thanks to AI and move fluidly across departments.

Workers will be able to delegate information tasks to their AI agents, freeing time for deep, focused work, while organisations will unlock APIs to empower their partners and suppliers, negating the need for time-consuming discovery compliance work. Small teams will be the norm he says, and they will be capable of massive impact.

The world and the future is powered by people, but enabled by AI.

Ian Beacraft

Chief Futurist, Signal and Cipher

(Re)human Renaissance

As tech gets more capable, what will be our place in the AI revolution? What can we achieve, and who can we become? A slew of talks explored the intersection of AI and humanity, and how it might shape our evolution.

“AI fundamentally makes us even more human,” according to Peter Deng of OpenAI, predicting that future generations would grow up with a tool that would enable them to think more deeply and at a higher level. Education start-up founder Mackenzie Price agreed, saying AI will help build human intelligence. Price discussed 2Hr Learning, an education initiative that uses generative AI for personalized academic learning, allowing students to spend just two hours on study and devote the rest of their time to passions and interests.

At a panel exploring ways AI can drive human connection, the chief communications officer at experiential arts company Meow Wolf, Didi Bethurum, predicted that AI will enhance communication not just by translating language but by helping us navigate cultural differences.

As noted in the Future 100: 2024 report, human connection is a major opportunity amid a global loneliness crisis. Radha Agrawal, community architect, cofounder and CEO of collective dance movement Daybreaker, spoke about the power of belonging to build a more inclusive and compassionate society. She unveiled the "compass of belonging," a formula for reconnection more than a decade in the making, based on spirituality, connection to the earth and our ancestors, and service to others. Agrawal is also on the board of the Belong Center, an organisation dedicated to addressing loneliness in our cities. In her view, marketing and advertising is “on the frontlines" of this issue with an immediate opportunity to consider impact on belonging. Look out for a VML Intelligence Q&A with Radha, coming soon.

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Daybreaker Co-Founder, CEO and Chief Community Architect, Radha Agrawal. Image courtesy of Daybreaker.

Engineered Empathy

One solution to the connection crisis could lie in fostering empathy. Filmmaker Cheryl Miller Houser described how stories that transport us quite literally synch our emotions, making us feel like participants. Experience can also offer an unlock for empathy, illustrated by a session that showcased Strap Technologies’ ARA navigation device for people with impaired vision. As the audience listened in semi-darkness, CEO Diego Roel Chapa shared his unique approach for triggering empathy in new recruits, which involves installing them blindfolded in an apartment for several days. “Once we build empathy” said Chapa, “we are humbled.”

At the Creative Industries Expo, US HR tech company Checkr hosted its "Beyond the Bars" gamified empathy experience. The escape room style activation invited visitors to assume the role of a newly released prisoner trying to rebuild their life. Equipped with a tiny budget and few other resources, participants quickly grasped the need to navigate a sea of red tape to find work and housing, all while complying with the requirements of parole. Ken Oliver, VP of Corporate Social Responsibility at Checkr, tells VML Intelligence that “the barriers facing justice-impacted people can be overwhelming. I wanted to put participants in the shoes of someone coming out of prison to show them how difficult re-entry can be.”

At the DataWagashi session, design and technology duo Tiange Wang and I-Yang Huang introduced the concept of “data empathy” to convey complex issues like climate change, which are too often communicated by bewildering charts and graphs. Might food offer a more approachable medium, fostering empathy and nudging positive behaviors via a multisensory experience? DataWagashi explores themes like carbon footprint or ocean heating via the senses in the form of Japanese desserts called wagashi. This traditional sweet has a simple form factor and by varying the recipe, the desserts can communicate and connect, via color, shape, texture and flavor.


Apple’s Vision Pro has ignited renewed excitement in XR, but it’s the category’s convergence with AI that looks set to be more significant.

At the XR in the age of Vision Pro panel, speakers enthused over the breakthroughs in AI storytelling on show at the XR Experience exhibition, specifically calling out a piece called The Golden Key by Marc da Costa and Matthew Niederhauser, winner of the XR Experience Jury Prize. The work depicts an infinite fairy tale unfolding across three giant screens, generated by an AI trained on a global dataset of tales and myths. At SXSW, audience members were invited to shape and personalize the narrative by introducing their own characters and story elements.

Magic Leap founder Rony Abovitz suggested what he calls "storyworlds" could be the next killer app for XR. Storyworlds or “cinematic reality spatial movies” will go beyond film to fully immerse the viewer in a “rich detailed container for culture, art or music.” He pointed to a demo app experience shipping with the Vision Pro called Encounter Dinosaurs created by filmmaker Jon Favreau as an early sign of what’s to come.

Near futurist Neil Redding called this convergence of spatial and AI a “huge unlock for the promise of co-creating reality,” thanks to its ability to deliver a sense of presence and togetherness. Reality is no longer objective he said, pointing to OpenAI’s SORA as a precursor for how we will conjure our own realities. We’re at a turning point where “quantum reality becomes reality” said Redding, and once we realise that “we co-create reality, everything becomes possible.”


As outlined in VML’s macro report The Age of Re-enchantment, our lived reality is often plagued with hyperrationality and efficiency. People crave emotion-inducing experiences that offer thrills, magic, wonder and more. Andrew and James McKinnon of Australian creative agency Taboo urged marketers to “escape the vanilla valley” and strive to “violate expectations” by introducing audiences to experiences that transport them and offer wonder, exhilaration, even fear and unease.

Outside the conference halls, a host of immersive activations aimed to do just that, this year led by the streaming giants. Alongside Netflix’s holographic set piece to launch 3 Body Problem and The Lodge experience for Paramount+, Prime Video trailed its upcoming Fallout series with an immersive activation. The drama depicts a post-apocalyptic future where residents of luxury subterranean shelters must finally confront the weird and violent reality of life above ground. In a parking lot south of the city, guests could explore the fictional wasteland town of Filly. Issued with a handful of local currency (Nuka Cola bottle caps), guests could meet the residents, try their hand at lasso, shoot a “junk jet” gun or brave a visit to the barber slash dentist.

Elsewhere, Audible offered a dose of dopamine at a fairground experience of games and colorful carnival performers. The main attraction was a sonic Ferris wheel in which each gondola offered a different audio experience. Continuing the playful theme, home fragrance brand ~Pourri hosted its Camp Funk experience which drew long lines eager to gain entry to its inflatable Giant Poo installation. You read that right.

As ever, it’s an impossible challenge to sum up a whole week of SXSW, so keep watching the VML Intelligence page for more insights from the conference. You can also enjoy our other stories from the week, including Netflix’s 3 Body Problem activation, a fascinating talk on de-extinction with Ben Lamm of Colossal Biosciences, and a roundup of all the winners from the Innovation Awards.

Until 2025!

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