Experience Express in Austin: Decentralizing the Web at SXSW Interactive

With its flurry of sessions, events, concerts, and exhibitors, it's a wonder anyone gets any sleep at SXSW, the giant gathering of minds, auteurs, and performers in the capital of Texas.

Here in Austin, there's always a sense that everyone is on the verge of the next big discovery, whether that's the hottest new cryptocurrency or the finest taco purveyor.

During my second year attending SXSW Interactive, I managed to catch a few fascinating sessions that consistently dwelled on the liminal areas of virtual and augmented reality, blockchain technology, and the decentralized web. This year, with the majority of attendees eager for never-before-seen insights, panelists and presenters did not disappoint.

The Experience Express made a stop here in Austin for a few days to showcase a few of the sessions that came on Pi Day and to highlight one hot topic — the decentralized web.

In this column, we're in the Lone Star state to learn about how problems like lack of empathy and inconsistent patient records could possibly find solutions in nerdier pursuits like machine vision and immutable (and secure) recordkeeping, before joining a panel with web pioneers about starting the internet all over again.

Can virtual and augmented reality fix empathy?

"The true promise of AR/VR lies not in digitally replicating our experiences in our real lives, but in creating new kinds of experiences even at our basic perceptual level." —Christopher Berger

"I believe there is a way to use AR to build empathy between individuals." —Daniel McDuff

Many who know about Acquia Labs already know about our work in augmented and virtual reality due to its potential to convey situational content rather than the rigidly screen-based content we're accustomed to. But what if rather than helping us understand the world around us, machine vision and augmented reality could help us better understand each other?

Christopher Berger (Postdoctoral Scholar at Caltech) and Daniel McDuff (Researcher at Microsoft Research) presented a thrilling session that demonstrated how augmented and virtual reality could push the boundaries of human perception.

"Our perceptions are extremely susceptible to biases and misperceptions," said Christopher. To illustrate this, he demonstrated several studies that showed how humans could be fed false information about their physical self and surroundings given visual stimuli in virtual reality.

Christopher's contention is that virtual reality can not only change information in a way that wasn't possible before it existed, but also that it can lead to more immersive experiences in virtual reality by extending our sense of touch outside the body and onto physical objects, employing new inventions like haptic devices or wearable suits.

Focusing on bodily synchrony, Daniel McDuff cited several cases where those who share common experiences can often experience bodily synchrony: mothers and children, negotiators at a table, and fire-walkers and their worried families in the audience. In Daniel's work, machine vision has benefited from advances in camera technology, to the extent that it is now possible to measure heart rate, respiration, and other bodily indicators through video imaging and signal detection, even while subjects are performing other tasks.

Daniel rhetorically asks, "Can we use this type of feedback to have an individual synchronize with someone else? If I give you information about someone's heart rate, can that lead to you synchronizing your own heart rate with that person?"

To finish, Daniel pointed out a new project, EmotionCheck, a wearable device that can change users' perception of physiology through subtle vibrations on the wrist, with the goal of helping to relieve anxiety.

Can blockchain fix healthcare?

Meanwhile, in the healthcare industry, blockchain technology is increasingly becoming an essential part of any conversation that concerns improving the patient experience. John Bass (Founder and CEO, Hashed Health), Beth Breeden (Associate Professor of Pharmacy at Lipscomb University), Dominique Hurley (VP, Strategic Partnerships and Innovation at healthverity), and Aaron Symanski (CTO, Change Healthcare) offered a compelling look at how blockchain can revolutionize the medical profession and begin to resolve the crisis in healthcare.

I only managed to catch the second half but found important insights in their final words and particularly in responses to audience questions. John Bass argues that credentialing a license, such as a physician's identity, will become verifiable by patients and insurance providers quickly thanks to the use of a blockchain. According to John, in addition to a physician's credentials, patient identity, clinical trials, and medical records will all become tradeable digital assets.

After the session, several attendees asked compelling questions about the downsides of implementing blockchain. One person argued that the cost burden would fall to the patient, while another called out the continued problem of data interoperability even with the benefits of blockchain, citing the example of some electronic health records (EHR) classifying "broken foot" and "fractured foot" as separate things while others don't. Beth Breeden offered blockchain as part of a hybrid solution in which emerging data standards will flatten differences between data housed in distinct EHRs.

Can decentralization fix the web?

I was honored to join forces with Sara M. Watson (Berkman Klein Center), Andrei Sambra (Qwant), and Muneeb Ali (Blockstack) to discuss an area that has gained significant attention in recent years as the centralization of the web into the hands of "Big Tech" has only become more pressing for our democracy, our privacy, and even our very identities.

During the panel, Sara homed in on several key questions that aimed to tackle the quandary of what the decentralized web will actually look like. Muneeb, the co-founder of Blockstack, argued that organizations like his company, which offers an open-source platform for developing decentralized applications (dApps) like Graphite, will be key foundations on which future applications that prize the user's control over their own data will flower.

From a different direction, Andrei drew from his experience on the Solid project to contend that handling data in a sane way is essential to the newly decentralized web. This involves decoupling the application from the data it handles, a key conceit of modern software architectures (including decoupled Drupal). For me, the biggest concern with both Muneeb's and Andrei's altogether compelling visions for the web is user experience; we cannot reach a truly democratized web — the secondary goal of decentralizing it — without user experiences that novice users can understand.

Stay tuned for more from Acquia about our "Starting the Internet All Over Again" panel and a video recording of the session.


On the street and around the hallways of SXSW Interactive, there was adrenaline and anxiety in the air about the ways in which emerging concepts like augmented and virtual reality, blockchain, and the decentralized web could disrupt our understandings of key elements of our daily lives — or even put us out of our jobs. It's no surprise that these sessions were some of the best-attended of the entire conference.

Next week join Experience Express as we dig back into Drupal, focusing on core REST and its configuration, the HAL specification and module, and the REST UI module, among other topics. Then, we'll begin exploring the contributed landscape for Drupal web services.