Seven Innovations That Made a Splash at This Year’s SXSW

The massive Austin event has become the place for unveiling cutting-edge tech, from educational apps to virtual reality art

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Festivalgoers attend the Trade Show during the 2019 SXSW Conference and Festivals this week in Austin, Texas. Amy E. Price/Getty

When it got started more than 30 years ago, South by Southwest (SXSW) was a mere music festival. Today the Austin, Texas festival and conference is about music, film, art, technology, education, design, sustainability and pretty much anything else, drawing tens or even hundreds of thousands during its 10-day run. SXSW has become a leading venue for showcasing new technologies and innovations—here are some of our favorites so far.

A Handheld Ultrasound

((Butterfly iQ))

The winner of a SXSW Interactive Innovation Award in the category of medical technology, the Butterfly iQ is a portable ultrasound scanner that transmits images via an iPhone app. Running on an innovative silicon chip, the device makes it possible for doctors to scan patients right in their office—or even at home. This makes it possible to do scans—whether of the heart, a limb, or a fetus in utero—in places without traditional ultrasound machines. Plus, it's about 1/5th the price of a traditional machine. 

A Quacky Companion for Kids With Cancer

A fluffy robotic duck from the insurance company Aflac took home a Robotics and Hardware Prize. "My Special Aflac Duck" is meant to be a companion for kids with pediatric cancer—it can show a range of emotions, lead guided deep breathing exercises and demonstrate medical treatments, like the placement of a catheter, to help steady nerves before a procedure. Aflac will provide a free duck to any child over three in America currently undergoing cancer treatment. 

Accessibility Solutions for the Blind

Aira, winner of a prize for Social and Cultural Impact, is a service that connects people with blindness or low vision to specially trained agents via a pair of camera glasses and a smartphone. The sighted agent sees whatever the Aira user is focused on, and provides whatever assistance is needed. This could be anything from reading the list of spelling words on a child's homework to explaining where to find the next hold on a climbing wall. 

A Digital Solution for Protecting Languages

From Australia, the Living First Language Project helps protect and preserve indigenous languages through interactive literacy apps. Many of these languages have few living speakers and are at risk of being lost. The project engages technology to record and preserve grammar and vocabulary from older speakers, then uses digital educational tools to then teach the language to children. The project was a runner-up for an Innovation prize at the festival. 

Real-Time Crisis Response

Sometimes, when a disaster like an earthquake strikes, a call will go out for help—send blankets, send water, send canned food. But needs shift quickly, and the blankets that were necessary yesterday might be in oversupply tomorrow. NeedsList is a real-time needs registry to connect people with what they actually need, right now. In Greece, refugees at a resettlement camp need sleeping bags. In the U.S., migrant farmworkers displaced by a hurricane could use Walmart gift cards. The platform takes requests from vetted nonprofits and connects them with corporate partners looking to donate. It was a runner-up for a Social and Cultural Impact prize. 

Virtual Reality for Child Safety

A runner-up for a Virtual Reality prize, AVEnueS is a VR experience designed to help human social workers practice and sharpen their decision-making skills in high-stress situations. Case workers are often asked to make quick decisions regarding child safety that have tremendous repercussions. Is the child at risk in this home? Should we remove the children to foster care? AVEnueS lets workers practice in an immersive 3D environment, with angry parents, perhaps a frightened child. Creators say it is useful not only for social workers but for anyone who interacts with children, from teachers to police officers to family counselors. 

Bedtime Stories When You're Far Away

A finalist for an educational innovation prize, Caribu is a digital platform that lets you read with your kids, even when you're far away. The app combines face-to-face video calling with digital picture books, so you and your kid can both see each other and the book. Interactive workbooks even let you draw together. Military families get access for free. 

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