Almost a year ago, SXSW, along with city and county officials, made the agonizing decision to cancel its 2020 conferences and festivals in the face of an advancing coronoavirus pandemic. It was the first major international event of its type to do so, but the cancellation would soon prove a benchmark for scheduled mass events around the world that year—buttressing if not cementing SXSW's reputation as a sort of vanguard institution.
Never inclined to sleep on innovation, SXSW nevertheless had a massive technical challenge to face in planning its 2021 event, which due to the ongoing pandemic has to take place almost exclusively online. In addition to the fact that people who have now spent a year interacting with non-family/non-pod members on Zoom might not find this prospect particularly enticing, a huge part of the festival's appeal has always been how its attendees get to experience the city of Austin (or at least a SXSW version of Austin), specifically, up close and personal.
Fittingly, technology has come to the rescue. SXSW 2021 will take place in a "condensed, fantastical" Austin—one that includes re-creations of Congress Avenue and downtown's Red River Cultural District, including several beloved venues. According to a Tuesday announcement. SXSW Online XR—"XR" being a catchall term for various kinds of realities, including augmented, virtual, and merged—aims to transcend the typical Zoom/online chat/virtual meeting experience.
To that end, according to SXSW XR and Film programmer Blake Kammerdiener, the festival worked with social XR events studio Vroom and artist Vincent Masson to design and produce the festival's virtual edition. In addition to creating an online version of downtown streets, the team re-created such venues as the Paramount Theatre, the Contemporary art museum and rooftop events space, Mohawk, Empire Control Room and Garage, and Cedar Street Courtyard.
"SXSW really wanted to create a space in the virtual world that brought Austin to life in a spectacular way," said Kammerdiener. "Attendees can come together, explore these worlds, and watch content created specifically for the VR world and the greater SXSW Online video channels."
And while it might not completely replicate the experience of running around Austin with too many things to see, at least attendees won't have to worry about standing in long lines or (hopefully) the weather.