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At SXSW, bots will play amid the political fray

Donald Trump's presidency is setting the tone at this year's festival, but that won't stop bots, VR and general geekiness from running amok.

SXSW kicks off Friday in Austin, Texas.
Rita Quinn/SXSW

SXSW started as a music festival, and it never learned how to turn down the volume.

Starting today, roughly 88,000 people will descend on downtown Austin, Texas, for the SXSW Conference and Festivals, which has expanded to include 263 films, more than a thousand tech-heavy panels and upward of 2,000 music performers.

But as with most facets of public life this year, politics is looming large over this year's gathering. Although much of the conference's programming was set before the November election, President Donald Trump's policies are percolating throughout the festival, especially as they clash with the left-leaning constituency of SXSW. But bots, virtual reality and general geekiness are still going berserk here too.

SXSW is no stranger to politics, or politicians. President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, appeared at separate keynote discussions last year, and the conference's government track routinely draws in political leaders.

But this year, with panel titles like "Network for the Resistance" and "Dark Days: AI and the Rise of Fascism," Trump's presidency is the undercurrent to many of the discussions here. In some cases, the executive branch's policies have triggered controversy.

Last week, the festival came under fire for provisions in its contracts with musicians about "notifying appropriate US immigration authorities" if artists' behavior undermines the performance showcases. SXSW said that the language was included in past years' agreements and that the clause has never been enforced, but it later promised to remove the language from future agreements.

"In this political climate, especially as it relates to immigration, we recognize the heightened importance of standing together against injustice," the festival said in a statement Tuesday, a day after Trump signed a new executive order that would temporarily ban immigration from six Muslim-majority countries.

Then on Wednesday, FBI Director James Comey pulled out of his keynote planned for the following week. The session was one of the most high-profile of the conference. Comey cited a scheduling conflict that would keep him in Washington.

The cancellation came amid tension between Comey and the White House. The administration had called on Comey to back up Trump's allegation that Obama ordered taps on Trump's phones during the presidential campaign, even though Comey had already asked the Justice Department to deny the allegation.

Several prominent Democrats will take part, though. The conference appears to be doing its best to work its way through the Obama White House, bringing former Vice President Joe Biden and his wife to the stage this year. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey is also among the featured speakers.

Gone to bot

It's not all about politics; geekiness is still ready to unleash itself at SXSW.

Bots, the cutesy term for digital assistants that perform simple automated tasks, are an ongoing thread through the Interactive portion of the event. Two panel discussions reference the "rise" of bots in their titles.

SXSW's official app even has a bot of its own this year. The automated helper, named Abby, will answer attendees' questions about programming and offer personalized recommendations.

She's very responsive. She had a whole paragraph instantly at my fingertips when I asked where I can pick up my badge. She suggested SouthBites, a food-truck hub nearby, when I asked where I can find some tacos. And she directed me to the first-aid station when I asked where I can get drunk.

Virtual reality is also getting more time in the spotlight at this year's film festival. VR, an immersive entertainment format that uses headsets to make viewers feel like they're in the middle of the action, has been a growing presence at SXSW since Oculus, now part of Facebook, began showing up here in 2013.

This year, SXSW launched a standalone VR section of the film festival and booked 38 projects in what it calls its Virtual Cinema.

Among some of the geekier VR experiences are "A Fistful of Stars," which hitches viewers for an operatic ride on the Hubble Telescope; a virtual meeting with a hologram of astronaut Buzz Aldrin; and WABA, which appears to straddle simple virtual-reality interactivity and a Studio Ghibli anime movie.

Other geek highlights: A "Game of Thrones" panel will round up show creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss with actresses Maisie Williams and Sophie Turner, who play Stark sisters Arya and Sansa. Pay attention Sunday afternoon for any tidbits about the July return of HBO's hit fantasy that the quartet may drop during their chat.

And "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" director Gareth Edwards is returning to SXSW. The fest helped launch his career by premiering his first feature, "Monsters," in 2010. Edwards will deliver one of the film festival's keynote speeches Monday.

Virtual reality 101: CNET tells you everything you need to know about what VR is and how it'll affect your life.

Crowd Control: A crowdsourced science fiction novel written by CNET readers.