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At SXSW, hardware goes soft

commentary South by Southwest often launches breakout software hits, such as Twitter and Foursquare, but the show's organizers shoved hardware into the spotlight this year. Only problem? People forgot to get excited.

AUSTIN, Texas -- An open-source Android gaming console and 3D printers ready to scan you Tron-style were what the organizers of the annual South by Southwest Interactive conference here wanted badge-holders to care about.

Instead, people chose Grumpy Cat.

The annual show took a hard turn toward hardware in an attempt to expand its mandate, but badge holders swerved in another direction -- toward memes.

Hardware was unusually ever-present but remarkably unappreciated. It was as if conference organizers, who put new devices center stage in keynote presentations, wanted to intentionally shift the show's focus away from consumer Internet applications so as not to draw attention to the dearth of breakout apps. The strategy fell flat.

The well-applauded opening day keynote presentation on Friday with MakerBot chief Bre Pettis failed to set the tone for the show. By the time of Monday's ill-received keynote featuring Julie Uhrman, the head honcho of open-source Android gaming console Ouya, the writing on the wall was clear: hardware wasn't selling the show.

One exception to that was Tesla Motors and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk's keynote. He blew the crowd away with a video demonstration of the Grasshopper vertical takeoff and vertical landing vehicle and discussed the controversial New York Times review of his company's Tesla Model S. Musk's presentation earned the most social mentions of any of the keynotes, with 16,085, according to Salesforce, which tracked social conversations from March 8 to March 12.

Then again, space shuttles and cars are more like the ultimate in consumer hardware.

But Grumpy Cat, who did not offer a keynote and was instead camped out across the street from the Austin Convention Center in the Mashable tent, came in second, according to Salesforce's tracking, with 13,931 social mentions. Grumpy Cat's social victory beat out all comers except for Musk, including former Vice President Al Gore and his comments on Snapchat. If you wanted to spend a few seconds wiping your finger grease across the dwarf cat's fur and have your photo taken with it, you had to wait for several hours in a line that wound its way around the block.

Another meme turned to real-life that did well at SXSW was Matthew Inman's keynote. Known best for his Web comic The Oatmeal, and his two successful crowd-funding projects, Inman scored a rare victory at SXSW: a nearly uniformly positive reception.

Google had the opportunity to score big at SXSW this year, especially with Google Glass, but chose not to possibly because of a companywide decision to not spend much money marketing at the event, according to a source close to Google. In retrospect, the source said, SXSW would've been the perfect venue for more public exposure to Glass.

Instead, Google went with a little-promoted space near the Austin Convention Center called Art Copy Code that featured, among other things, a talking shoe that will never go to market.

So what's left from SXSW 2013? Grumpy Cat stole the show, which is becoming more and more marketer-focused as big brands take over. Controversies with SideCar and Marvel Comics's Comixology giveaway were notable, but not for innovative new tech. Marvel's adaptive scores for digital comics was an interesting use of existing tech. And sure, the geeks and developers were still there, and we spoke with many of them, including Improv Everywhere's founder -- but they were far outshadowed by their marketing counterparts.

The relevancy of SXSW Interactive could be in doubt, though, if it becomes just another tech-and-marketing dog-and-pony show. And that'd be a real shame, given its far more exciting, cutting-edge history.