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David Pidgeon 

SXSW: The dawning of a transmedia world?

SXSW: The dawning of a transmedia world?

This is the year for transmedia, writes Cedar's Kim Willis - where making an impact means giving people a deep, sensory and immersive experience.

In an alleyway north of 6th street in Austin, a lady is whispering in my ear with a Southern drawl explaining that back in 1885 a brutal murder occurred on exactly the spot where I'm standing. After describing how the serial killer's footprints were found in the dead girl's blood, she directs me up to the 7th floor of the next-door car park where the one hour experience about this dark period in Austin's past concludes to a panoramic view of the new city and a blistering guitar soundtrack.

This is the Detour app, launching here at SXSW in partnership with RadioLab to push a new frontier in live digital storytelling. At its most basic it's an app-based audio walking tour, which through an iPhone and some headphones helps you explore a new side to Austin by syncing directions with your precise location.

Yet by integrating journalistic storytelling and interactive tasks - in this case the real story of a serial killer from over a hundred years ago - the experience better resembles a live version of the Serial podcast. One of my fellow tourees described it best: it's like being in a movie, only here your eyes are the camera.

The tech, platforms and story-telling capability is all available now. It'll just take an innovative brand to bring them together in a compelling way."

It's just one example of the biggest theme coming out of 'South-by' this year: the new immersion possibilities from a mash-up between a fairly mature set of technologies. New creative developments can now go far beyond the basics of a single channel or even a cross-channel comms strategy. Instead, the more exciting artists, start-ups and marketers are thinking about the truly affecting content experiences that can be created when you mix media to support live story.

The SXSW experience itself is a live test bed for this transmedia story-telling. 80,000 people, over 6,000 sessions, and every individual charting their own unique journey through the festival. The event converges new talent in tech, film and music, supported by the SXSW mobile app with tags for the hottest sessions and push notifications on the big chat topics, as well as daily emails on the latest parties and keynotes. Once again, it's the tech supporting real people to have new and better experiences.

Beyond Detour's audio travel guides and journalism, virtual reality (VR) is also building this momentum. At New York start-up VR video, founder Edwin Rogers uses six gopro cameras to capture live news events in 360 degrees, taking people right into the heart New York's Eric Garner protest on Brooklyn Bridge by putting on the Samsung gear VR powered by Oculus and playing the video on a Galaxy Note 4. Look up, you see the helicopters. Look down, you're in the crowds. It's the next wave in live experience broadcasting. (And to get a virtual first hand view on the SXSW experience, keep an eye out for their VR video of Stromae at Spotify House later this week.)

At a more intimate aural level, Booktrack is a San Fran start-up creating audio soundtracks for reading experiences, with techniques like using suspenseful music for the thriller scenes, or the sounds of door-slamming or crowds shouting at the appropriate time to fit the narrative. Multi-sensory experiences can be intrinsically more immersive: "you just feel like you're 'in' the book," their developer tells me, "one second you're on your sofa, the next you feel like you're in Dickens' London."

The tech is also creating new ways for audiences to influence stories in real time. At Campfire - the specialist content agency founded by the people who created the Blair Witch Project - creative technologist Elena Parker and her team are experimenting with new ways for TV audiences to turn from passive viewers into story participants.

In their 2013 Deja View cinematic experience for Infiniti cars, audiences could actually choose the course of the story in real-time by talking into voice recognition software via telephone.

Then there are all the ways the new AI and robotics technology will one day soon have a direct impact on the everyday human experience. In Marine Rothblatt's keynote, she describes a world where we will all have 'mind clones' of ourselves to converse with. Far-fetched it might seem - but this is a women who has become the US's highest paid female executive for her pioneering work in genetics and robotics, and who has already created a highly sophisticated robot version of her wife. You can even follow the 'thoughts' of the robot version on Twitter at @ibina48.

What does this all mean for brands? GE's global executive director brand marketing, Linda Boff, said it best her session on 'content marketing vs Don Draper', when she argued that "brands need to market for the year they're in".

This is the year for transmedia - where having a deep impact on an audience means going beyond aspiring to shallow channel views and instead finding new ways to invite people into a more immersive sensory experience.

The tech, platforms and story-telling capability is all available now. It'll just take an innovative brand to bring them together in a compelling way, to create something that audiences will truly engage with and remember.

Kim Willis is strategy director at the London HQ of content marketing agency Cedar.

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