Trending at SXSW: Mind cloning, off-the-grid messaging

SoulCycle kicks off at the Spotify House during SXSW 2015 on Monday  in Austin, Texas.
SoulCycle kicks off at the Spotify House during SXSW 2015 on Monday in Austin, Texas. GETTY FOR SPOTIFY

As a plane with a Grumpy Cat flag flew overhead, courtesy of Friskies, the Technorati flooded into panel discussions and happy-hour spots at the annual tech festival South by Southwest in Austin, Texas.

Top tech influencers pondered immortality and mind cloning. FireChat, an application that lets smartphone users connect via mobile chat even without a cellular connection, was another hot topic.

Here’s a look at the most notable trending topics at the tech jamboree.

Off-the-grid mobile chat. No cell service? No problem.

An app called FireChat uses phone signals such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth to connect to other users’ phones and enable chats without any network connection. The app, created by San Francisco startup Open Garden, debuted in 2012 and was a hit last August at the Burning Man festival in Black Rock, Nev., where cellphone service is scarce.

The software links people via what it calls a “peer-to-peer mesh network,” connecting through phone signals rather than a network. The range is about 90 feet, but the connection can jump from phone to phone if there’s a crowd. It’s software-only, says co-founder and CEO Micha Benoliel. The application currently supports public group chats and hashtags; private messaging is coming.

Advances in cloning. United Therapeutics CEO Martine Rothblatt, who considers herself a “transhumanist,” discussed advances in “mind cloning” in a keynote Sunday. She said she believes people one day will be able to clone their cognitive functions, and detailed her biotech company’s advances in cloning organs and making the process of transferring organs from donor to recipient more efficient.

Rothblatt urged everyone to question authority and said that in other eras she might not have survived as a transgender person.

“I was fortunate to be born in California and to have a president who can easily say the word ‘transgender’ without tripping over it,” she said.

New trends in tech. The line to hear digital-media futurist Amy Webb speak stretched around the corner at the new J.W. Marriott hotel in Austin long after the panel started.

Webb, whose clients include Twitter, Time and ad agency Publicis, says she studies how and why people are wasting their time on mobile and where they are having difficulty with technology in order to predict new trends.

Two areas she predicts will be big in 2015: “haptics,” which add a tactile component to notifications, and mobile ambient alerts, which could buzz to notify you without being overly intrusive.

Some examples of haptics include the Pavlok app’s electric shock, which can punish users if they smoke or overeat, or a shirt by Australian company Foxtel called Alert Shirt that uses wearable technology to let soccer fans feel the body blows their favorite soccer player gets during a game.

Using ambient alerts, a finance application could buzz when you are considering a purchase – a nudge to remind you “do not try to purchase something right now,” she said.