NEW YORK - The smell of BBQ is in the air and talk about virtual reality, online privacy and the latest hot apps is on everyone's minds. It's time again for South by Southwest Interactive, an annual tech festival dubbed "Spring Break for nerds."
The five-day festival, which kicks off Friday in Austin, Texas, is more freewheeling than other tech conferences like CES in Las Vegas and Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain. It's where St. Bernards delivering Mophie smartphone chargers to festival goers — as the charger maker arranged last year — can garner as much buzz as the apps brought to fame there, including Foursquare in 2009 and Twitter in 2007.
"It's an interesting place to see what types of things are bubbling up in technology," said Ryan Hoover, founder of Product Hunt, a service for people to rate new tech products. "It has this mixture or collision of technology and entertainment. When different types of minds and people are connecting together, new ideas come out."
The festival has grown larger and more corporate over the years, with sponsors including McDonald's and Samsung, but it still draws an eclectic crowd of movers and shakers in the tech industry each year.
This year's sessions include one on a futuristic transportation system, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, which aims to move people in a capsule inside an enclosed tube track at 760 miles per hour — faster than commercial airliners.
Twitter co-founder Biz Stone will discuss the evolution of online search, while "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" director J.J. Abrams and "The Jinx" director Andrew Jarecki will tout Jarecki's new app for video editing and sharing, KnowMe.
Even President Obama will make an appearance, the first for a U.S. president at the festival. He plans to talk about civic engagement with the editor-in-chief of The Texas Tribune, a non-profit news outlet based in Austin.
Ethan Kurzweil, a Bessemer venture capitalist who has attended the festival for eight years, said that while South by Southwest Interactive is no longer the little-known yet influential festival it once was, "you can still hear people talking about the very-bleeding-edge consumer tech trends."
South by Southwest Interactive is part of the larger SXSW festival, which also features sections for movies, music and games over 10 days. The interactive conference drew 33,825 registrants from more than 80 countries last year; the combined festival had about 80,000.
Organizers drew criticism several months ago when, faced with threats, they cancelled two panels on harassment in online video games. In response, the festival will hold a daylong "online harassment summit" on Saturday, with a slate of panels examining the problem of online harassment.
Another hot topic will be the U.S. government's demands that Apple create a software program to bypass security features in an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino mass shooters. One panel will focus on ways to improve the relationship between the government and the tech industry, while preserving privacy and security.
And virtual reality will continue to garner buzz, particularly as many systems such as Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Sony Playstation VR are expected to hit the market this year. Some sessions will be part of the SXSW gaming festival, which runs March 17 to 19. But the interactive festival will have such panels as "Holy light field! Creating lifelike presence in VR." And Samsung will show off VR chairs that offer motion simulation as people wear Samsung's $100 VR headset, Gear VR.