Why Immersive Entertainment Was SXSW’s Big Winner

Cathy Hackl 

For a few weeks every year, the streets of Austin, Texas, become a tech epicenter with all eyes on the latest product launches and brand activations. I graduated from the University of Texas, so I was lucky enough to attend SXSW when it was mostly music and some indie films. Now, everything from major brand announcements to the premiere of Spielberg-directed blockbusters happens in the “Live Music Capital of the World.” 

I spoke at this year’s SXSW Interactive portion of the festival. I was lucky enough to share the stage with Gabriele Corcos, a celebrity chef turned immersive entrepreneur; Gordon Meyer, the marketing mastermind behind a tabletop augmented reality display device that uses blockchain, called Lampix; and Dana Dojnik, one of the sharpest female minds in the VR space and the director of strategy at You Are Here Labs in Atlanta. 

We spoke about how VR and AR are impacting commerce, content and even cuisine. Needless to say, it was a very dynamic panel. 

While I was in Austin, I kept my eye out for the trends that PR pros should explore, and the one that jumped out at me most was the use of immersive theater.

Immersive theater made a huge impact. 

If you were following along with any of your friends or co-workers who attended the event, then you probably heard some of them rave about the “Westworld” experience. This was the hot ticket of brand activations this year. HBO’s agency, Giant Spoon — in conjunction with the show’s creators — took over an old ghost town outside of Austin and transformed it into the town of Sweetwater.

Melia Robinson from Business Insider described it well: “HBO created an entire theme park set in the American frontier, where ‘Westworld’ fans could experience what it’s like to be a guest of the sci-fi show’s park. Actors playing the town’s residents live out elaborate storylines, and visitors interact with them as if they’re the artificially intelligent hosts from the show.” 

This is immersive theater, and one of the best examples of it. Immersive theater is defined as a presentational or theatrical form or work that breaks the “fourth wall” that traditionally separates the performer from the audience both physically and verbally. Audience members become part of the story. 

Sound familiar? It should. 

Many of us who work in the virtual reality industry have been influenced by immersive theater, because the two mediums are closely related. I’m a huge fan of immersive theater hits like “Sleep No More” and “Then She Fell,” so I was thrilled to see HBO embracing this theatrical trend. 

It’s important to notice that immersive entertainment is set to become even more popular in the future. Just wait for Walt Disney World Resort to open its “Star Wars”-inspired resort, which will be fully integrated with “Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge” at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. 

According to Disney Parks, “This first-of-its-kind resort will combine luxury with complete immersion into an authentic “Star Wars” story. At the resort, guests immediately become active citizens of the galaxy and can dress up in the proper attire.” 

The success of the “Westworld” Live Without Limits experience at SXSW is just the beginning of immersive entertainment, as it will lead to more brands and consumers understanding and joining in on the concept while also inspiring further interest and adoption of VR altogether. 

This article origianlly appeared in the May 2018 issue of Strategies & Tactics.

 Cathy Hackl, one of the leading women in the VR/AR industry, will be the featured speaker at PRSA’s “Future Communications” workshop on Nov. 16, 2018 in San Francisco, where she will discuss how immersive technologies impact PR and news gathering, content marketing and social media. Register here: http://bit.ly/prsafutcomms