SXSW 2015: VR for my feet, pedicabs and a biohacking party

Navigating 3D virtual worlds using new kinds of high-tech controllers and hanging out at a keg party while making genetically modified organisms are just a few of the experiences you could try at the South by Southwest festivals in Austin.

South by Southwest Interactive showcases 'cutting edge technologies and digital creativity'

  I'm in the kitchen of a ranch-style bungalow, where party-goers are in the process of making genetically modified bacteria on a table cluttered with half-full plastic cups of beer – it's just one of dozens of eclectic parties going on tonight in Austin, Texas, during the South by Southwest festivals. 

I hadn't arrived in Austin until late afternoon, but by the time I make it to the biohacking party organized by Toronto-based Synbiota, I'd already had a busy afternoon that included navigating a virtual cave using controllers designed for my feet and riding a pedicab through the traffic-snarled downtown core.

Justin Pahara, chief operating officer for Synbiota, walks party-goers through the steps to genetically modify E. coli bacteria to turn it different colours. (Emily Chung/CBC)

  SXSW is a trio of three main festivals, including celebrated Music and Film Showcases. I'm at SXSW for the  Interactive Festival, which bills itself as "an incubator of cutting-edge technologies and digital creativity." The paper version of the schedule of panels, networking meet-ups and other events is a daunting tome the size of a small laptop computer. 

Themes range from fashion and wearable technology to gaming to health and medical technology.

Kids and costumes

On my first day, I checked out the SXSW Gaming Expo at the Palmer Events Center, an event open not just to festival badge-holders, but also the general public. Unlike the rest of the festival, it was crowded with children and families. In the tradition of "geek culture" events, many visitors were in video game-inspired costumes.

David Whelan of Los Angeles and Philippe Lucas of Victoria do some genetic engineering work in the kitchen. (Emily Chung/CBC)

The event featured a wide range of activities and technology, from retro arcade games to virtual reality experiences featuring new kinds of controllers. Los Gatos, Calif.-based Sixense was letting people train with "virtual light sabres" controlled using hand-held, motion tracking devices that vibrate when they make contact with another virtual light sabre.

Toronto-based Ground Control was showing off controllers that consist of two plates for your feet that let you jump and squat by tipping forward and back, or move by sliding your feet in different directions. The company is currently in the midst of a Kickstarter campaign to fund the device. Navigating a virtual cave with it was an interesting experience, but not intuitive for me.

Keg party with E. coli

After the Gaming Expo, my plan for the evening was to head to Synbiota's biohacking party – one of many intriguing private events that are linked to the festival but aren't on the official program. After struggling unsuccessfully to find a pedestrian route that crossed the nearby interstate, I decided to hail one of the many pedicabs or bicycle rickshaws that seem to be one of the only ways to get around. It was a pleasant change from walking.

The keg party was on a ranch-style bungalow on a residential street that was eerily quiet compared to the busy festival area. Host Connor Dickie, cofounder and CEO of Synbiota, said it was rented from Airbnb.

Justin Pahara, chief operating officer for Synbiota, demonstrates how to use the company's software to design an organism using genes that turn it different colours. (Emily Chung/CBC)

  The Toronto company makes kits ranging in price from $45 to $995 designed to let anyone – no scientific knowledge required – make genetically modified organisms at home. It just launched its newest, most advanced kit, called DNA Tinker Studio, at South by Southwest. 

At the party, the company's chief operating officer Justin Pahara walked party-goers through the steps they needed to take using a computer plugged into the TV in the living room to design genetic modifications for their E. coli bacteria to turn them different colours. 

  The actual "lab work" took place in a kitchen equipped with a Keurig coffee machine and a well-stocked spice rack, using micropipetters and little vials of coloured liquids scattered between half-full cups of beer on the kitchen table. 
  Dickie said over 200 people RSVP'd for the event, and at any given time, there were about 40 people dividing their time between drinking and socializing and "biohacking." How well did it work? Synbiota hopes to post pictures of the results online today. 
  In the meantime, there will be lots more interesting experiences to check out – the Interactive Festival runs until March 17.