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SXSW 2017: Plenty of Innovation, But Also Plenty of Politics

While inclusivity was a central theme throughout the festival, there was still plenty of the quirky and futuristic charm that has come to define SXSW.
Image: Virtual reality chairs, SXSW
Positron VR chairs were used to take reporters on a zero gravity plane ride with "The Mummy" star Tom Cruise at the SXSW Conference.Universal Pictures

While this year's SXSW tech conference still had plenty of the quirky and futuristic charm that has come to define it, inclusivity was a central theme throughout the Austin, Texas show this year.

Former Vice President Joe Biden and tech leaders set a serious tone, tackling some of the most pressing issues facing society right now.

For Biden, that was taking on cancer, which he called the "only bipartisan thing" left in the United States.

He told the attendees that the festival brings together "some of the most creative minds" in the world. That synergy, he said, is vital to making leaps in better understanding cancer, how to prevent it and how to manage it.

Related: Tech Takes a Stand for Transgender Rights, Planned Parenthood

SXSW is being held as Texas lawmakers weigh SB6, the so-called "bathroom bill" that would force transgender people to use the bathroom facility matching their birth certificate.

At the Austin Convention Center, a sign in every bathroom pledged the event would continue to be "inclusive, diverse and forward-thinking," adding that the conference organizers "oppose discriminatory legislation."

"Corporate leaders need to recognize they are, in a way, political leaders," Tinder CEO Sean Rad said while speaking on a panel about how Tinder made changes to embrace the transgender community.

Tinder CEO Sean Rad with other panelists at Swiping Right on Inclusivity with Tinder & GLAAD at SXSW 2017 at the Austin Convention Center on March 10, 2017 in Austin, Texas. Vivien Killilea / Getty Images

Tumblr's David Karp just launched a new movement called #TechStandsWithPP, alongside Planned Parenthood's president, Cecile Richards. They're asking for people to use the hashtag to share how the health services organization has helped them or people they know.

In a joint statement, the duo said the tech community has "power to influence public debate, mobilize communities, and — most importantly — offer creative solutions to help people receive better care, no matter where they live or who they are."

Several panels also addressed Silicon Valley's diversity problem and how women are navigating what has been referred to by many as a "boys' club."

"It is going to be us females helping the next generation of girls not give up and pursue a degree in engineering," Sandra Lopez, a vice president in Intel's New Technology group told NBC News. "Fast forward 15 years, I think Silicon Valley is going to look very different."

Bolt Threads, a Bay Area-based biotechnology company, is releasing a limited-edition knit necktie made of Boltspun spider silk.Bolt Threads

Dan Widmaier, CEO of Bolt Threads, showed off a spider silk tie at his panel called "Nature: The Future of Fashion and Tech."

Mixing a classic look with an unorthodox material, the tie is made of 100 percent spider silk and is the end product of seven years of research and design — or, as Bolt Threads likes to point out, "200 person-years."

So why spider silk? Widmaier said it fits with the company's mission of producing sustainable fabrics.

“We wanted to demonstrate the reality of a completely new way of manufacturing textiles, one that has nearly unlimited potential for innovation and also produces a sustainable product,” he said.

Virtual reality is also getting even cooler with new Positron Voyager virtual reality chairs. In support of the upcoming Universal movie "The Mummy," starring Tom Cruise, members of the media put on headphones, strapped on a VR headset and sat in a pod-like chair.

Positron VR chairs were used to take reporters on a zero gravity plane ride with "The Mummy" star Tom Cruise at the SXSW Conference.Universal Pictures

The result was a wild ride that felt like the viewer was actually on a zero gravity airplane ride with Cruise.

Virtual reality can make some people feel sick. Couple that with the idea of doing Cruise's stunts in real life, and it may sound nausea-inducing. However, no one complained of any motion-induced sickness after leaving the theater and it seemed to be a surprisingly comfortable experience for everyone.