“We explore, or we expire”, said astronaut Buzz Aldrin during his keynote at SXSW Interactive in Austin, and there’s no better way to summarize the famous Austin festival. “It’s the unexpected that makes SXSW unique”, adds ceo Michel Tombroff of Jack.

Startups.be and Morning Glory, plus key partners Jack, iText, Look, Telenet Kickstart, Frontback, Cronos Development and The CoFoundry organized a large-scale mission to South by Southwest this year.

The Belgian booth at the SXSW Trade Show, called Café des Belges, showcased 10 Belgian companies and highlighted their products and services - all with demonstrable intellectual, creative or entrepreneurial excellence.

Historically SXSW has been the site of numerous tech innovations, yet for 2017 there weren’t any launches like the ones of Twitter, Foursquare or Meerkat. Things took a more abstract turn: if there was one technology that popped up everywhere, it was artificial intelligence (AI).

While author Ray Kurzweil argued that we’ll achieve singularity (when machines reach human consciousness) by 2029, his colleague Bruce Sterling warned that our ancestors wouldn’t exactly congratulate us for giving our humanity to robots, stressing that machines could make humans useless.

The flip of that existential debate was around how AI is infiltrating at the brand level. In this space, it’s about making sense of complex data through machine learning, therefore enhancing and augmenting capabilities rather than merely removing human roles.

The future of food 

Harley Davidson, for instance, showed an AI-tool to match new and similar audiences to its current database - finding ‘lookalike customers’ who might be interested in purchasing a motorbike.

Two of the Belgian companies that joined the Café des Belges are also at the forefront of the AI-revolution. Bernard Lahousse from Foodpairing discussed food-related AI in Austin - the problems being solved; the methodologies and algorithms being used - and contemplated about the future of cooking.

Sentiance, an AI scale-up that works for companies like Peugeot, helps to deliver the right message to the right person, at the right moment and place. It does this with the help of machine learning algorithms that automatically learn to understand and predict the behavior of a customer, by connecting his or her actions to the relevant context.

It’s those kinds of applicable AI apps that really made a mark in Austin.

Virtual reality 

Another technology that played a big role at SXSW this year was virtual reality (VR). While not a new trend for the festival, VR got a big play with an entire exhibition dedicated to it, showcasing experiences from NASA to Yondr.

“For us, one of the key takeaways from SXSW is the fact that VR is still considered to be the next big computing platform”, argues Pieter Van Leugenhagen from the Belgian VR-agency Yondr, “and interestingly, brands are leading the way.”

“The whole digital, creative and VR-scene was present at SXSW, so for Yondr the conference was really useful. We’ll make this a yearly appointment, as it is key for our business development in the US.”

Jukebox for children

One more Belgian company that joined the ‘Café des Belges’-crew was Muuselabs, the creator of Jooki, a jukebox for children. Muuselabs made it to the finals of the SXSW pitch competition, and the little jukebox with the cute figurines drew a lot of people to the Belgian booth.

“Being a finalist in the SXSW accelerator certainly contributed to increase the impact of our participation”, explains ceo Théodore Marescaux of Muuselabs. “What we learned from the show itself is that the audience attending SXSW definitely is an ‘early adopter’-audience for our product. In that regard, our presence in Austin was very useful. The festival is a great place for media exposure and high-level contacts in the industry and with investors.”

Michel Tombroff, ceo of the slow messaging app Jack, agrees. “The festival allowed me to meet important people in the mobile messaging and social media business (people from Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, etc.), who would otherwise have been very difficult to approach.”

“Also, the exposure to people in totally different markets (e.g. music, entertainment) opened up some unexpected opportunities. It’s those unexpected encounters that make SXSW truly unique.”

“If you're a start-up, then don’t miss out on SXSW next year”, stresses Mike Van Cleven from Farmboy. “From a conference point of view, you will take away valuable input and lesson/best practices. From a business development point of view, you might (or will) run into either potential customers and/or potential investors. Either way, it's a great testing ground for your idea(s).”