Across the five days of the festival, designers Kelvin, Grace and Renu attended panels, keynotes and workshops that explored the boundaries of design and pondered what design really means in an AI world. When asked to distil their experiences into key takeaways, here's what resonated most.
Of all the panel discussions and talks I attended at SXSW Sydney, it was the Human vs Machine: The Great Creativity Wars that I most enjoyed. The three speakers, David King, Kimberlee Weatherall, and Stela Solar, all experts in AI in their own way, spoke in detail about the speed at which AI is evolving and whether machines (AI) can truly be creative, what this means for humans, and what does it mean to be creative.
I had three main takeaways from the panel that got me thinking about AI and its role in creativity.
Kill your darlings
AI can be used to aid in the generation of ideas, making it quicker for humans to get to the end flow. Meaning (for now) AI is only part of the workflow and requires human input to set the boundaries and context and refine it so it’s a usable end product. Humans can guide and make decisions at key points along the way, ultimately defining the objective and realm where the AI operates.
The term ‘kill your darlings’ is a common piece of advice given to writers, encouraging them to cut (or ‘kill’) characters and storylines that hold back the flow and creativity of a project. AI can be an invaluable tool in assessing what those unnecessary elements are that you may have worked hard to create and cannot quite let go of.
The perfect tennis game
What does it mean to be creative? This was a question that came out throughout the panel and they considered a game of tennis. You could program two robots to play the perfect game of tennis, but the reason why we watch and are excited by tennis is the human aspect of it. The unpredictability of the humans and the struggle, blood, sweat, and tears that the elite players have gone through to get there. The role of the human in the creative process is often the element that resonates with audiences. For now, the reason we watch humans play tennis is the relatability to us. But how much will this matter as we, along with AI, evolve and change and continue to consume AI-produced books, videos and other content?
AI in context to humans
We speak about AI in relation to humans, because it’s how we can best understand it. Our current understanding and use of AI is narrow, general, and super AI. They are as follows:
- Narrow: language models like ChatGPT that are task-trained
- General: reason and intuitive judgement, knowledge gained from solving one problem that can be transferred to another
- Super: human+ and aware of itself
The speakers posed that if this is all we can perceive now, what could be next that we cannot yet perceive?
During my week at SXSW, I attended the AR and VR talk with Alvin Graylin, HTC Vive Global VP and Dan Burhar, Frontier Collective CEO and also the President and Founder at The VR/AR Association. I see AR and VR as being a core part of the next evolution of the digital space, especially in ways that do away with screens, and make the digital realm more seamlessly integrated with reality. Whether that’s a positive or negative thing, I see it as an inevitable next step. The talk explored how these technologies can support inclusion, identity and expression for all groups in society, and here were some of the key takeaways.
There have been studies to show that the nature of VR is inherently immersive and offers a sense of presence, thanks to its multisensory cues such as visual, auditory, and tactile. Apparently, it’s the next best thing to experiencing something in real life. There are so many positive applications for this, in areas where it might be either too difficult to have those experiences in real life, too dangerous, or too costly. There are also ways to use the tech that can offer new perspectives, through seeing situations through someone else’s eyes.
For example, de-escalation programs in the police force. Using VR to allow new recruits to experience difficult situations that encourage de-escalation in non-violent and empathetic ways, in particular one experience that has the recruit take on the role of the alleged perpetrator, to help understand the situation through their eyes.
The presence and immersion of VR and AR-related tech has been shown to increase people’s cognition while using them. There have been studies to show that the user retains more information, can grasp concepts faster, learn languages in half the time, and gains more from repetitive tasks. This means it can replace certain real-world training programs.
The mixed reality tech, which draws more from AR than VR as it means you can see the real world while having digital overlays, is the space that I’m most excited about. This is where there are lots of positive applications in a variety of industries, such as mining, the medical world, forestry, engineering etc. The area that mixed reality is positively impacting the most is in surgical settings, where students can be guided through complicated surgical procedures, using a synthetic model and a headset. There are studies that show the proficiency levels after the mixed reality approach vs a video-based tutorial were significant.
Making it safe
For the same reason that VR/AR can enhance presence through immersion, it means it’s even more important to ensure these spaces are safe. During the panel, they discussed the need for government institutions to ensure there is no hate speech, violence or sexual imagery in these new immersive environments. And those guard rails need to be considered and planned for immediately so that when this new digital world becomes adopted in the mainstream, users are protected.
It is amazing how many topics fall under the category of 'tech and innovation'. SXSW was a refreshing outlook on how vast the boundaries are. From reducing single-use parts in car manufacturing to how XR can educate in de-escalating social issues, there was a lot of ground to cover. One of the talks that inspired me the most was 'The Art of Experience: Beyond the Instagram Wall'. I was curious to see how new technologies can be leveraged to create amazing real-time events.
Instead, I was surprised to what extent I learned that the 'need' to capture every moment or intersection overshadowed the experience in itself. Alex from New Moon (a North American activation agency) spoke about the guidelines he developed on how to create a successful activation. Like design principles, there are guidelines that help in shaping a successful event.
By definition, activation is about creating a connection between the brand and the consumer through an experience. It does not always need to translate 1:1 to the product or service offered but rather relates to and magnifies its purpose. In both experiential and web design, we are designing with a specific audience in mind. It should be an experience that is intentionally niche. Inclusive to create a safe space and a shared experience - even if it means a wider group may be excluded. He emphasised that it was in the little details that the audience remembers, like a little takeaway gift at the end as a physical cue to move forward.
In my opinion, the most inspiring talk I attended during SXSW Sydney was presented by whiteGREY Australia and focused on the importance of inclusive design and accessibility. The talk, titled 'Elevating Accessibility with Dylan Alcott', was an open and frank discussion about the limitations that differently-abled people face in the creative industry right now. Dylan Alcott, Australian Open Champion and former Australian of the Year, spoke passionately about his lived experiences and the challenges he faces every day when trying to engage with the world.
What I found inspiring was that this session's tone was not one of 'the world is not fair' but more of a call to action for the creative industry to not be afraid to fail when attempting to design for inclusivity. "If you don't try, there will be no progress.", He explained that it is ok to fail not be fully 100% compliant, but if we don't attempt to design experiences for everyone, then there will be absolutely no value for those who fall outside of the typical norms of accessing content or engaging with products.
Another key focus point of the session was the advocacy of those with the lived experience of a disability (one in six Australians) who haven’t always been included in the creative process. Teams will often embark on designing products or experiences based on assumptions and continue through the production phase to testing. Once they reach the testing phase, there is often more iteration and refinement needed because the people they are designing these experiences for were not involved in the process from the start. Alcott was passionate about changing this, to ask that people with lived experiences of a disability are included in the process either by employment or consultancy, to shift the bias that this group of people experience every day.
Inclusive design and accessibility compliance is taken very seriously at Luminary, to have this talk be an opening session to a tech and innovation conference is a powerful statement and one that we support.
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