In spite of the beautiful 62-degree weather and sunshine breaking through the cloud cover, winter has well and truly come to Austin, TX this morning as HBO opened the doors to its SXSW headquarters, the aptly named SXSWesteros. What was once a humble bar called Gourdough’s has been transformed into a version of the Seven Kingdoms in miniature. Okay, not as miniature as the opening theme, but it’s still pretty damn fun.
With a massive replica of the Iron Throne in the corner, you can lay your claim to all of Westeros and get photographic proof that you are the Once and Future King/Queen/Khaleesi/whatever monarchic title you self-identify with. While the Iron Throne is definitely an amazing photo op, HBO also enlisted a production company called Red Paper Heart, along with Civic Entertainment Group, to create an interactive swordfighting experience like none other. First, you pose for a portrait, taken in profile. Next, you step up onto a stage and pick up a wooden sword modeled after Arya’s practice sword from Game of Thrones. (They’re so detailed in fact that they were designed by an actual Game of Thrones prop master.)
The screen commands you to “Get Ready”, then targets begin popping up on the screen. Using your sword like a Wiimote, you slash at them in order to rend them asunder. Don’t try to get cute and stab, though — it won’t register. The sword controller itself was surprisingly responsive, and soon I found myself trying to perform increasingly elaborate strikes. Granted, I’m a bit of a ham, but it’s hard not to have a good time once you’re up there.
Red Paper Heart senior producer Lisa Walter told me that HBO came to them asking for an interactive experience. Seven weeks later, they created the highlight of SXSWesteros. By embedding complex sensors like accelerometers and gyrometers into the sword, they are able to communicate with an app constructed in Cinder. With each strike, the portrait comes more and more into focus, revealing a seriously impressive picture, pulling from a vast library of different assets. The idea, Walter told me, was to create a portrait that feels organic within a 3D space in order to create a unique dichotomy.
The end result looks a little something like this:
Thanks to robust programming behind the scenes, virtually every portrait will be different. Walter has made dozens of portraits of herself while testing the experience and no two were alike. All of them, however, were decidedly rad. The naturalistic imagery combined with the real wooden sword in hand makes for a supremely satisfying, tactile experience that is far more fun than any run-of-the-mill photobooth. Basically, I got to be Arya Stark for three minutes — all of the fun of being one of the best characters on the show without the muss and fuss of having most of your family members murdered. Now that’s what I call a win-win.
On your way out, there is a “social media-powered vending machine” in celebration of the release of Catch the Throne: The Mixtape, Vol. 2, which features artists like Talib Kweli and Mastodon performing Game of Thrones-inspired hits. Simply follow the Twitter-based instructions on the screen, and you’ll be rewarded with a prize. In my case, it was a Catch the Throne iPhone case.
And for those of you who are 21 and over, Brewery Ommegang offered an early tasting of its Game of Thrones-inspired beer. The latest offering is a Three-Eyed Raven Dark Saison Ale, which pours about as dark as its winged namesake, but tastes much better. Actually, I can’t say for certain as I haven’t eaten raven meat, but let’s call it an educated guess, shall we?
If you’re at SXSW, you can take the Kingsroad to SXSWesteros, which is open to the public from 10:30am – 5PM CT from Friday, March 13 through Sunday, March 15, and from 9am – 2pm on Monday, March 16th. Brewery Ommegang’s sampling begins at 12pm each day.