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Austin, beware: The SXSW geeks are back in town

The South by Southwest Interactive confab brings together bloggers, podcasters, and others for five days of shenanigans, partying, and networking. CNET takes a road trip

In the wee hours of a Texas morning last March, two of the world's most creative geeks, armed with Bluetooth and a vacuum, set out to subject one innocent frog to a certain future as roadkill.

Animal activists can rest easy. The antics--part of last year's South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) event--led only to bloodshed of the electronic kind: Make magazine editor Phil Torrone and DIY electronics pioneer Limor Fried had wirelessly run a tricked-out Roomba vacuum cleaner across Austin, Texas's famed Sixth Street as a late-night reenactment of the classic video game, Frogger.

No related arrests occurred that morning, but CNET News.com's story on the Roomba Frogger garnered reactions ranging from outrage that someone turned a public street into a video arcade, to "That's the coolest thing I ever heard."

Roomba's Frogger fandango

So Austin, beware: SXSWi--one of the largest gatherings of Web personalities, bloggers, game designers and other digerati--is back in town today, as are Torrone and Fried. (The green-shirted Roomba, alas, is unlikely to appear--his final, crushing trip across Sixth Street having been dictated by a white SUV that didn't swerve.)

The five-day Interactive segment of this year's festival will feature an august group of keynote speakers, including famed journalist Dan Rather, The Sims creator Will Wright, and Head First books creator Kathy Sierra. With Torrone and Fried still on the agenda, however, you never know what might happen in the early-morning hours.

With its impressive docket of speakers, 2007 is expected to be its biggest year yet for SXSWi, which is now in its 14th year. Hugh Forrest, director of SXSWi, said he's not sure how many people to expect at this year's event, but he's certain it will be more than last year's record high of 4,700.

Video: CNET's going on a road trip
The bands, the movies, the interactive media, the barbecue--we'll be on the scene in Austin.

"We've just been fortunate to fall into this very, very creative community," Forrest said. "And that community has helped us grow a lot, and people want to be a part of that."

For those attending, the conference means many things. For many, the speakers provide the strongest allure.

Wright is expected to talk about , his latest and much-anticipated game, which Electronic Arts said it will publish later this year.

Rather, who recently left CBS after decades as the network's most accomplished reporter and anchor, is taking the opportunity to talk to some of the most Web-savvy people about how new media is changing journalism, and what that means.

For some, the draw of SXSWi is that it's loaded with nonstop panels, starting today and ending Tuesday. Some examples include:

•  "Your video blog can save the world": Offers to teach people, "How you can effortlessly set up your own videoblog--and contemplate the immense power inherent in this new form of media."

•  "ARG! The attack of the alternate reality games": A primer on the emerging genre of mixed-media games that includes and I Love Bees.

•  "When does user-generated video become independent filmmaking?": Poses the question of the differences between video blogs and short films, and many more.

For many other attendees, SXSW means parties and lots of them. The event is famous for its booze-fueled shindigs, often sponsored by corporations like Yahoo, Frog Design or Razorfish. In somewhat humorous fashion, these parties are often scheduled one after another, side-by-side, so that at 9 p.m. when the open bar closes at one party, the entire crowd simply shuffles next door and continues on as if nothing had happened.

The parties, as along with the conference as a whole, have a purpose, however: networking.

I go "mainly for social reasons and to hang out with the people I only see each year at SXSW," said Scott Beale, who blogs about tech culture on LaughingSquid.com. This year "will be bigger and more chaotic (with) more speakers, talks and parties than ever before," said Beale, one of many attendees who go to SXSWi annually and see it as something of a reunion.

Festival goers and planners expect to see an ample supply of new blood, as well. In fact, Forrest's prediction that SXSWi's population will bloom this year is driven in part by an anticipated influx of more video game industry members than ever before.

About 20 of the panels being offered are related to video games. In addition, crowds of people should be making the trek to Austin from San Francisco, where they have been attending the Game Developers Conference all week.

Organizers of the two conferences have promised not to place them back to back next year, in an acknowledgment that attending both events takes a toll on even the spriest geeks.

For those staying through the duration, SXSWi is just one part of three related festivals that span 10 days. The SXSWi film festival will feature some of the film industry's newest work, as well as scores of panel discussions, including one addressing how the Web is changing the nature of video. Another discussion will be led by director and Austin resident Richard Linklater of Slacker, Waking Life, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset fame.

Then, just as many of the Interactive attendees are flying home Wednesday, the SXSW music festival--one of the most heralded of such gatherings--will kick in with five days of audio entertainment.

For one woman going to both SXSWi and the GDC, the opportunity to attend her first South by Southwest show is exciting.

"I hope to meet industry thought leaders and to engage in conversations about what matters to me--the future of media, entertainment, technology and the creative process," said Souris Hong-Porretta, vice president of interactive media for Entertainment Media Ventures. "I'm looking forward to hearing what the collective creative hive is buzzing about. I want to be surprised at least a couple of times."