After a few trepidous years, SXSW is back in full swing and more electric than ever. This year’s festival presented a particularly fascinating forecast for the future of creative technologies. But before we peel back the nuanced layers of immersive media technologies and how they are altering the socioeconomic landscape of the world, let’s start with the basics: what exactly is SXSW?

It’s more than just a consonant-thick acronym. South By Southwest, colloquially known as “South By,” got started in 1987 as a mix of parallel festivals in film, media, and music, all grouped together in one big annual production. Every year since its inception, the festival has scaled up in size and scope to be what it is today…which is enormous. With a whopping approximation of 300,000 attendees, it’s Austin’s biggest event, and pulls in people from every corner of the globe.

SXSW more than keeps a pulse on the lub/dub of creative tech culture–it jumpstarts the very heartbeat. One of the trends that I observed, spanning across industries, was the increase in immersive experiences. This type of programming pulls participants into the experience, surrounding them with tangible stimulus. From multi-dimensional listening at the Dolby House, to virtual reality gaming competitions with Austin FC, there were so many activations that engaged participants like never before.

Essentially, companies and creatives alike are leveraging new AI tools and augmented realities to splice virtual experiences with a user’s five senses. Here are some different kinds of immersive media and their key distinctions:

Virtual Reality (VR) – Alters an environment using a computer to simulate various senses in 3D. Think 3D glasses at a cinema showing of your favorite movie. 

Augmented Reality (AR) – Does not require any other equipment (no headset, glasses, etc.), but rather works with your device to combine digital content with the real world. Think your favy Snapchat filter.

Mixed Reality (MR) – Combines elements of both VR and AR, where both physical and digital objects are interactive. While AR shows 3D objects on a screen, Mixed Reality displays completely digital objects in the real world, that users can interact with. Think Princess Leia’s iconic hologram.

Extended Reality (ER) – Combines all of the above. Harnessing the power of real and virtual models, Extended Reality is for large-scale and more vivid representations of design. Think trying on a pair of jeans virtually before buying.

Each of these immersive experiences have an increasingly powerful impact on different industries, effecting the way we consume media, provide healthcare, collaborate in educational spaces, and so much more.

While immersive media isn’t completely new, we can expect to see an increase in virtually augmented experiences coming from our favorite brands in retail, media, tech, and beyond. Evolving tools like gesture recognition, spatial sensing, and haptics, are making our everyday digital duties more “real-world”. Immersive experiences are swiftly taking center stage for the future of technology.