South by Southwest (SXSW) 2015 was all about unexpected combinations and strange ideas that, surprisingly, seem to work quite well. Simple chat programs gained Bluetooth networking and live streaming. Open-ended kids’ games got the serious narrative treatment. GPS and literary apps came together in novel ways.
We spotted a handful of offbeat apps, games and gadgets that would never quite fly at a more mainstream expo. These seven technologies may not be the next big thing the way Twitter and Foursquare were after their SXSW debuts, but you've probably never seen anything quite like them.
I'm fairly certain there was only one mind-controlled flying monkey drone at SXSW 2015, and that was the Nikko. In fact, consulting my notebook, the only thing I wrote down about it was "mind-controlled flying monkey drone." Users don an EEG-reading headband and take control of a quad-copter drone that's been decked out with a fake monkey head, wings and fur. Without the gaudy get-up, its creator thinks the Nikko could be used for search-and-rescue missions and police work. With it, the drone is adept at capturing farm girls from Kansas and their little dogs, too.
A potential tool for concertgoers and political protesters alike, FireChat is one of the more important apps from SXSW 2015, both from a societal and technical perspective. In a nutshell, FireChat splits the difference between texting and Twitter. You can connect to the Internet and communicate with friends privately, or expand into large, public real-time chat rooms. What makes FireChat unique is that if there's no Internet available, it can connect with other nearby devices via Bluetooth to make persistent ad hoc networks — useful if the mobile network is overburdened from music selfies or if the government shuts it down.
Guitars may get the cheers from arenas full of fans, but how about a little appreciation for the violin, the hero of the string section? Historically, it's been very difficult to learn the violin, but Jamit may help mitigate the challenge. This small gadget connects to almost any violin and helps gauge how well and accurately a musician plays. The device also connects to an Android app, which contains lessons on finger positions, reading music and other necessities for playing the violin. The meat and potatoes of the app, however, are its musical selections, which range from Bach to Coldplay and help you learn entire songs.
Meerkat is a very simple live-streaming app. Just connect via Twitter and either start a live stream right away, or schedule one for later. What makes Meerkat interesting is not necessarily what it does (which is admittedly useful), but rather the incredible drama surrounding it at this year's SXSW. While Meerkat was poised to be the breakout app of this year's show, Twitter clamped down on Meerkat’s access to its service in favor of the upcoming Periscope, a more complicated but more robust live-streaming app. (You can still sign in to Meerkat with your Twitter credentials and announce live streams to your Twitter followers.) If you need a perfect example of how the tech industry can absolutely lose its mind over an app, look no further than Meerkat.
Minecraft: Story Mode
Minecraft is an open-ended game that's all about exploration and player-created content. Telltale Games makes cinematic story-driven games based on mature properties like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones. These two collaborating on a story-driven Minecraft title may sound like madness, but that's exactly what Minecraft: Story Mode is. Telltale hosted a panel at SXSW that dedicated a significant portion of stage time to answering questions about Minecraft: Story Mode, explaining how it would tell a funny, kid-friendly story in the blocky universe while staying true to the sense of style that makes Minecraft so much fun.
My personal favorite app from SXSW 2015, Squirl is a bibliophile's dream come true. The app syncs with your phone's GPS. From there, simply walk around and a notification will pop up anytime you pass by a location where a book took place. For example, visit 221B Baker Street in London, and Squirl will alert you that "A Study in Scarlet," the first Sherlock Holmes novel, was set right where you're standing. In addition to helping readers connect to their favorite books, Squirl also wants to help up-and-coming authors connect with customers by having their books pop up as potential readers walk past locations in the story.
Gamers and multimedia editors don't really need all 104 keys on a standard Windows keyboard for their most frequent tasks. Enter the Trickey, a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter to offer modular keyboards with anywhere between one and 36 keys. Each board unit possesses six slots and can hook into other base boards, letting you use exactly as many keys as you choose, and in any configuration you find comfortable. The keys use top-of-the-line Cherry MX mechanical switches, and have transparent keycaps, so you can supply your own designs. Trickey isn't for everyone, but if a full keyboard is overkill for you, it's worth a look.