3-D Printing, Cat Videos The Hot Topic At SXSW Interactive Conference

This week is the South by Southwest Interactive conference in Austin, Texas. It's where the big thinkers of the tech industry get together; this year's hot topics include 3-D printing and cat videos.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish, and it's time for All Tech Considered.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: The big thinkers and big players in the tech industry are in Austin, Texas, right now for South by Southwest. It started as a music festival that grew into being a film festival and a tech conference. Back in 2007, South by Southwest Interactive was that place that Twitter first took off.

NPR's Laura Sydell is there, along with the techies and investors, to find out about up-and-coming ideas and trends.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: If you want to go to the biggest tech conference, that might be the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. It's bright lights and 150,000 people, and most of them are trying to sell you gadgets. But for South by Southwest Interactive, sharing new ideas was the goal when it was founded 20 years ago. South by Southwest is a lot smaller and, like Austin, it's a little friendlier.

When you ask people why they're here, some sound a little idealistic.

JAMAL ORR: Mainly, it's inspiration. Some of these things just get you charged up to go back and get you thinking about new things, as I'm doing software development and so on.

JASON CARPENTER: You get like a fresh burst of energy just about like something that may have not been on your radar. Like, wow, this technology is interesting. I'm going to figure out how I can apply it to what it is I do personally.

SYDELL: That was Jamal Orr, a digital marketer, and Jason Carpenter, a software engineer.

While this conference tends to be more focused on software and social media, this year there was a lot more chatter about hardware. The opening keynote speaker was Bre Pettis, the founder and CEO of MakerBot.

BRE PETTIS: MakerBot is all about empowering people to make stuff.

SYDELL: Make stuff using 3-D printers that individuals can afford. Three-D printing allows people to design an object on a computer. The printer melts metals and plastics and reshapes them into the form you designed.

In his talk, Pettis offered up inspiration when he told the audience that he launched his company at South by Southwest in 2009. He'd just finished making his first low-cost 3-D printer the night before the conference began.

PETTIS: And at about 8 A.M., our prototype worked, and I jumped on a flight at 10 A.M. to come to South by Southwest. And I basically went to bars and put the MakerBot on the bar and started printing shot glasses, which turned out to be pretty popular.

SYDELL: Also on display was the Leap Motion Sensor, which lets you control your computer with hand gestures. There are start-ups here focused on taking tourists into space and software to keep track of your cholesterol. There are also big names in tech like Google, Twitter and Yahoo with big banners and loud parties. And a few big names here like Ashton Kutcher and Al Gore.

Since South by Southwest Interactive runs alongside a film and music festival, it's always a hub of discussion about new media, everything from companies that stream serious independent films to...

(SOUNDBITE OF CAT MEOWING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You guys ready to watch some cats?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Meow. Meow. Meow. Meow. Meow. Meow. Meow. Meow. Meow.

SYDELL: Cat videos, that is, brought to you by two curators from the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis who talked about their first cat video festival.

SCOTT STULEN: Now, I'm not to the point where I'm going to call all cat videos high art. But I'm also not going to call them meaningless either.

SYDELL: That's Scott Stulen, one of the Cat Vid Fest curators. Stulen told a packed auditorium that their experimental project didn't make everyone at the museum happy, but it drew 10,000 people to watch videos they could easily have seen by themselves online.

STULEN: But in actuality, the greater joy was the experience of watching very familiar videos with each other, like seeing a classic rock concert where people want to hear the hits and not hear the stuff from the new album. It's a lot like that.

SYDELL: And South by Southwest feels a little like a rock festival for techies. For people who spend their days in front of computers, sharing ideas in email and on social networks, this conference is where they can still have the kind of exchange that only happens when you're standing next to a real live human being.

Laura Sydell, NPR news, Austin, Texas.

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