Skip to content

Experiencing the ‘skeuomorph’ of SXSW 2019

Posted 14 Mar 2019

Nearly 80,000 creative industries executives assembled this week, in Austin, Texas for the annual cultural trade show come schmoozerama, South by South West SXSW). Thousands of tech media worshippers queued around the concrete shrine of the Austin convention centre to listen to gurus like Malcolm Gladwell, Meg Whitman and Jeffrey Katzenberg. As trendy young TV subscription services and old fashioned networks vied with each other to try to spend more on promoting next season’s big shows, the lines between digital and physical reality began to blur and I tried to find a more authentic SXSW moment.

I may have found it when I stumbled across a great presentation and discussion led by designer and futurist, Jared Ficklin. He is a designer and technologist who spent 14 years of his career at Frog Design and is also a regular visitor to Burning Man.

Jared’s theme worked around how we might humanise our technology future and avoid the more dystopian scenarios that colleagues in TV and film were busy promoting in other parts of the convention. Along the way Ficklin talked about skeuomorphism. By this, he means things that are represented graphically inside a digital space but made to look like their real world analogue versions. The best example of this is the famous bookcase for the iPad, which Apple ultimately revised out, but which was one of the defining tropes of the new iPad experience when it launched.

Here’s the Wikipedia definition of a skeuomorph: a derivative object that retains ornamental design cues from structures that are inherent to the original.[3] Examples include pottery embellished with imitation rivets reminiscent of similar pots made of metal[4] and a software calendar that imitates the appearance of binding on a paper desk calendar.[5]

Jared talked about how he has developed his own kind of response to the skeuomorph which came from thinking about how to take the idea further into something he renamed the skeuoreal. By this, Ficklin means what happens when you take a real world object that works quite well and then you tweak it to have a digital element imposed on it, as a kind of improvement or enrichment.

In his example, he had some very large books made for an exhibition he was designing. He discovered that it would be very expensive to print on to the pages, but that he could reproduce the effect of content on the page by projecting images onto the blank paper with the digital image changed every time an exhibition visitor turned a physical page.

In other words, although he didn’t call it that, it was a kind of static augmented reality. “It’s a book, Jim, but not as we know it.” He didn’t say that either, Mr Spock said that in Star Trek, but that is fiction not reality, allegedly.

At the end of Jared’s presentation, the usual range of questioners lined up at the microphone in the aisle, to ask a few questions or make their contribution. One of those was Bruce Sterling, the well known futurist and co-founder of the cyber-punk movement in science fiction.

So there it was. My ultimate real SXSW moment; Sterling stood up completely unannounced and queried Jared’s new phrase. He wondered whether it would be possible to define the term better. So he proposed that a digital object might be skeuorealistic or an effort to create an effect might be an act of skeuorealism. Sterling noted, however, that there was a difficulty in this construction, in that skuoreal doesn’t become a noun simply with the addition of the indefinite article. Even during the excesses of SouthBy it still stubbornly remains an adjective. An interesting philosophical linguistic conundrum!

I was excited by this exchange of luminaries, spontaneously engaging with each other in an authentic discussion of how to talk about the real and the digital. I ran after Sterling to talk more about it. As we wound through the back streets of Austin, Texas, dodging the clouds of drunken hipsters on electric scooters, I suggested that perhaps we could live with this new sense of skeuoreality and that it could become a noun. Yet, skeuoreality did not allow for a definite article either. And here it was that we entered a new fracture in the time space continuum of philosophic and philological complexity: can a thing be termed an actual thing in reality if it cannot be in grammatical fact, expressed as a noun? Is this skeuoreality thing in fact a thing? What would Wittgenstein say?

Of course, as the crowds surged and the TV show branded promotions loomed large with offers of free cocktails and sushi, the ideas continued to unfurl. I sat recovering, sipping a beer that had been pumped from a plastic tree complete with serpent, in the Garden of Earthly Delights, an astro-turfed chill-out space sponsored by Amazon to promote their new series, Good Omens, based on the Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman novels. It occurred to me that perhaps we should introduce a different term and consider talking about a skeuotrope as an appropriate noun. Literally, a container holding a metaphor. A physical glass holding a virtual vodka martini, for example. This might provide another approach to describing the injection of something digital into the real world. This would acknowledge a further undermining of the certainty of either the real or the digital. It might even act as a reminder of how in hyper-real environments like SXSW, that which appears to be real may in fact turn out to be digital.

Earlier that morning I had rejoiced in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s augmented reality rendition of the Seven Ages of Man speech from As You Like It. It was being shown off at the British Music Embassy venue alongside an offering from the Imaginarium Studios which is the first ever full stage production to be virtualised with a full cast of 14, a production called the Grinning Man, both courtesy of leading edge augmented reality company Magic Leap. Later in the week, the AHRC, Arts Council England and Digital Catapult, presented another array of exciting projects from leading XR companies. We shared an update of our joint programme with ACE, Creative XR, three of the companies having participated in the first year of the programme having just had their work accepted into the Tribeca Film Festival.

At SXSW, replete with its virtual cinema, its augmented reality street art and its cocktail bars carefully but only partially disguised as corporate promotions, nothing is more likely than that SXSW is the ultimate skeuotropic trade convention.

Clearly, we are in the business of creating new kinds of physical digital experiences of all kinds whether we use immersive and augmented reality technologies or deck out the Half Step bar to promote the latest Bose headphones that masquerade as sunglasses. As I stand in line to enter the Netflix Highwayman promotion for their new show, I do wonder briefly about the dangers of a time when our children might fail to make easy distinctions between the physical and the digital, between the real and the artificial – Facebook is already throwing up that conundrum for news.

But then, an angel in a black suit with black wings and a damaged face offers me a free promotional umbrella under a clear blue sky and I know that all is well in the SXSW skeuotrope.