This year’s annual SXSW festival anticipated its largest attendance to date. Following the global pandemic, 2020 brought devastation to the DNA of the city, with a never-before-seen festival cancellation. The year following was moved online, and the year after that finally offered a breath of fresh air, as participants at last met in-person. But 2023 had a different kind of electricity, and the city was buzzing with excitement as brands and bands came together for an unprecedented turnout. 

Some of the most notable tech trends of past years included the rapid rise of subscription services, blockchain technologies, and of course, NFTs (which were virtually nowhere to be seen this year). 

The shift in 2023 was evident, and the focus was completely on the future. Web3, AI, and psychedelics took main stages; virtual realities and the future of human-to-robot ratio were hot topics of conversation. Experts and attendees gathered to discuss post-planetary humanity, from sex in space to immersive experiences that allow people to take a completely different perspective through extended reality (XR) and virtual worlds.  

A trend I noticed–and a new term I learned–was the rise of “soft tech”. First, I’ll explain what it’s not. 

It’s not haptic feedback from a device; not a buzzing phone as your mom is calling, or the rumble of the game controller as you jump from one track to the next in a Mario Kart home circuit competition.

Soft tech is softer in essence. It involves the human body, stimulating users with natural cues, like scent, for example. Imagine smelling a batch of your favorite homemade cookies when your mom calls. 

The goal is involving the five senses to change our fundamental relationship with technology. Rather than an exclusively visual experience with tech, using harsh metals or aggressive hardware, we’re shifting from a non-living interaction, to one that is more organic. And completely new.

Soft tech merges into the core of many of the other tech trends present at SXSW. For example, the XR experience can create virtual spaces of liberation, allowing humans to experience what life is like from a different perspective, as a different gender, or different species altogether. Imagine seeing your hands move or your eyes blink through a totally new vessel. 

These tools are instrumental for re-examining our society and participating in social activism that transforms traditional physical spaces, like our historically racist prisons here in the US. Such tools can also help fight transphobia, allowing cisgendered people to experience what gender dysphoria might feel like, or understanding the trans experience in general; reversely, for transgender folks, such technologies serve as a validating space for gender euphoria. By experiencing life through a different lens, we help remove phobias, racism, and other “isms” from future generations of culture. 

Soft tech is at the core of these very personal experiences. Using seamless technology to share the human experience is a key way to instigate meaningful change. It helps us keep authentic joy centered in a world of artificial intelligence. It’s power personified, embracing new tools to be an extension of our natural essence, rather than a replacement. I look forward to seeing where socially conscious soft tech takes our world.