Kim Phillips: SXSWi visits Denton via virtual reality

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"My company is based in Austin," the lady explained. "I'm looking to open a second office in the [Dallas-Fort Worth] area."

She explained that her employees thrive most in a creative environment where working, living and playing can happen in the same, walkable area.

"Is Denton like that?" she asked.

"Visit and see for yourself right now," a Denton exhibit host said. After being fitted with a headset and earphones, the lady's body turned this way and that, head looking up, then down, then sideways. A smile, laughter, a catch of breath. Via virtual reality, this potential new Denton business owner was touring our city.

For the third year in a row, Denton Convention & Visitors Bureau staff is part of a multi-member team exhibiting at SXSW Interactive (SXSWi) to introduce Denton to the masses from around the globe.

Among hundreds of innovators, services and gadgets are places. Countries such as China, Brazil and Australia to cities such as Denton, San Marcos, The Woodlands and Bastrop tout amenities to the 70,000-plus-large expo crowd.

We know our city offers something special. We are original, independent Denton, the creative hub of Texas. Our unique, vibrant city is exactly what these companies and individuals from across the globe seek on this expo floor. We offer the lifestyle they desire.

Our SXSW team includes members from the city of Denton economic development department, DCVB, Denton Municipal Electric, Texas Woman's University and the University of North Texas' Mayborn School of Journalism.

In the past, we've brought an entourage from Denton to showcase Denton's creative aspects. We took a different approach this year.

SXSW is one of the world's largest gatherings of techies, inventors, entrepreneurs and social media gurus. Why not employ their edgy technology to let them experience Denton first hand?

Denton's From the Future worked in tandem with the Denton Film Company to produce six 90-second virtual reality Denton experiences. Virtual visitors see Denton with 360-degree views from the tops of the Courthouse on the Square, UNT's Apogee Stadium and a TWU tower. They hang out in Redwood Studio while Midlake makes a record and stand in the midst of a symphony on stage at UNT's Murchison Performing Arts Center. They visit local eateries, watering holes, participate in LSA Burger Co.'s sunset toast, watch modern dancers shimmy across TWU lawns and visit one-of-a-kind shopping destinations.

"This is the coolest way I have ever toured a city," the lady said as she took off the VR headset. "I'm definitely checking Denton out in person."

We had four VR stations in our booth. Next up in my line was none other than Denton's own Sara Button, on assignment at SXSW with the Dentonite.

"I've always wanted to see Denton from the top of the Courthouse, and now I have. It's awesome that Denton is promoting at SXSW!" she exclaimed.

UNT and TWU alums are amazed at Denton's evolution since they graduated. We see Denton everyday, so the dramatic changes are somewhat lost on us. Seeing our city through their eyes is enlightening. "I know that place!" And, "Wow, that's new!" Or, "It wasn't like that when I was there," are phrases we heard again and again as the VR goggles are removed. "I felt like I was really there."

The best part of my job is preaching the gospel of Denton. But does exhibiting here make a difference?

I believe it does. Will we know if every virtual visitor actually comes to Denton? No. Do we know if they will remember Denton? Absolutely. Just to be sure, every virtual visitor walks away with a set of VR goggles with our SXSWi YouTube playlist so they can watch and share our videos far into the future. We can monitor those views and shares to track our impact long after SXSW 2017 is over.

Other cities exhibiting at SXSWi study Denton. We are trendsetters, and thanks to our Denton partners, we always impress. What we were doing last year, many of them are doing now, watching in awe our switch to VR. No doubt, they will follow our lead into VR next year while we will have moved on to the next coolest way of telling our destination story.

We are farmers at SXSWi, sowing seeds the fruit of which we may or may not reap ourselves. Some seeds will be visitors. Others will land in Denton to stay. What is sure is that the seeds will produce a future economic return to our city.

This Friday, the public is invited to a free, come-and-go event from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. on the patio at Agua Dulce. We will recreate for Dentonites how the SXSWi audience virtually visited Denton. You'll see Denton from perspectives most people won't see any other way, the virtual visit that convinced SXSWi that Denton is the original, independent place to be.

KIM PHILLIPS is vice president of the Denton Convention & Visitors Bureau at the Denton Chamber of Commerce. She loves promoting Denton's original, independent spirit through the city's sense of place and cast of many characters. She can be reached at kim@discoverdenton.com.


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