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Biggest crowds yet at kickoff of high-tech event

Official: Turnout up 40% over last year's 11,000 SXSW-goers

Brian Gaar

The South By Southwest Interactive Conference and Festival kicked off Friday afternoon as techies flocked downtown for a smorgasbord of panels and events.

The interactive event has become the fastest growing component of South By Southwest, with badge registration up 40 percent over last year, SXSW spokeswoman Elizabeth Derczo said Friday, although she did not have a firm count. Last year, the interactive events attracted about 11,000 people.

Attendance at the film festival, which also started Friday, is up about 25 percent, while the music event, March 17 to 21, will probably be even with last year, Derczo said.

Given the beautiful day, it almost seemed a shame to spend it indoors. But it was a day for computers, not sunlight.

At the downtown Hilton Austin hotel, laptop-toting attendees crowded into a panel about how to market a business through social media.

"Facebook and Twitter rock, but there are a lot of other options," Chris Winfield, co-founder of the Internet marketing company 10e20, told a standing-room-only crowd.

At one point, Winfield asked how many people had their own blogs. Nearly all hands went up.

As the event has grown, the panels and speeches are now spread out over four locations — the Austin Convention Center, and the Hilton, Radisson and Courtyard Marriott hotels.

The event attracts some of the biggest names in the technology industry, including Twitter CEO Evan Williams, who is due to give Monday's keynote address.

At the convention center Friday, video game companies showed off their wares at the free-to-the-public ScreenBurn arcade.

One of those was the ever-popular "Rock Band," a game that allows players to simulate performing in a band.

Harmonix Music Systems and Microsoft Corp. were publicizing the new Rock Band Network, which allows bands to sell their music through the game. "It sort of democratizes the process," said "Rock Band" spokesman Eric Pope, fresh from a performance of "Crocodile Rock."

And there was even some evening excitement, when a 5 p.m. alarm prompted an evacuation of the convention center. Fire officials said it was a system malfunction and that there was no fire. The alarm sent hundreds of people fleeing onto the streets around the center.

But it proved to be only a minor hiccup. People began moving back in shortly after officials gave the all-clear.

bgaar@statesman.com; 912-5932