South by Southwest Interactive is best known as the technology festival that put such social networking mainstays as Twitter and Foursquare on the map. But if there was a "next big thing" at this year's event, finding it would be pretty hard.
Part of the problem is that the Austin, Texas, conference has grown so large, with so much corporate branding and marketing taking place, that small tech companies must resort to extreme measures to get noticed.
Just ask Ebyline, an online marketplace for freelance journalists and publishers. The Sherman Oaks, California-based company set up a beer pong table at its booth in the exhibit hall, complete with free beer and a bartender dressed in black.
Within the first day of the festival's doors opening on March 8, many people were not talking about the latest apps, but rather Nabisco's Oreo cookies. The company was operating a large two-walled installation within the convention center where conference-goers could get their picture taken at a sleekly designed photo booth.
Experts have said that the signal-to-noise ratio at the conference has become frustratingly high for new companies trying to get noticed.
"It has really become a festival, with a great deal of branding from corporations," said Jeremiah Owyang, an analyst with Altimeter, in an email.
Shaquille O'Neal was even contributing to the noise this year. In the run-up to the conference the retired NBA basketball star was calling on startups to send him 15-second elevator pitches via the Tout mobile video app.
"It has become hard to stand out," said Jordan Viator Slabaugh, director of social media at Spredfast, an Austin, Texas-based management and analysis company.
"SXSW is less about coming to launch something and more about coming to learn and connect and create the relationships that will help you navigate the next few steps," she said during a March 11 panel.
"It's about the ideas," agreed Shawn O'Keefe, a SXSW Interactive producer, during the same event.
Social and mobile technologies, for instance, were not a very big focus at the show. Even Facebook's Graph Search, one of the most-talked-about new search technologies in the social networking space now, felt like a peripheral topic at SXSW. Only one formal session was devoted to it, at the University of Texas at Austin, more than 10 blocks north of the convention center where most of SXSW's events took place.
Still, the topic of that panel was telling: Marketers discussed what the social search engine's implications were in helping companies to promote their brands.
If there was a core technology showcased at the show, it was hardware. Smartphones, external hard drives, speakers and audio systems, and digital cameras capable of post-exposure focusing were all hard to miss.
There were also plenty of new design platforms for programmers, content management systems and digital media marketing and analytics companies exhibiting at the show.
On Saturday, Google was even showing off a talking "smart shoe" at its Google Playground across the street from the convention center, though the company stressed that it had no intentions of entering the footwear business.