Let’s get physical

lets-get-physical

James Bush, Creative Technology Director, Sydney

In my role I spend a lot of time researching new technologies, platforms, interfaces and interactivity. An area I am particularly interested in is gesture-driven interfaces. Exploring different technologies and techniques to produce playful interactions. For example, using cinematic techniques including depth-of-field, focus, and exposure to allow a user to explore the qualities of a product digitally through simple gestures.

I love watching ‘visions of the future’ videos produced by companies and agencies to show how every surface will be transformed into a technical marvel. Some are plain fantasy whilst others are turning science fiction into science fact.

Glass manufacturers, for instance, are exploring flexible and textured surfaces to enhance the gesture-driven experience.

But despite my enthusiasm, I have to admit there has been something bothering me recently. Something niggling away under the skin. I haven’t been sure what it is but I’ve known it’s there. My unease was confirmed recently when I read Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not A Gadget. In it, Larnier offers a provocative critique of how digital design is shaping society, both for better and for worse. I can see where he’s coming from.

Let me give you an example. I have fallen for the iPad Mini in a big way, and much to my surprise it’s become as much an integral part of my working day as the desktop machine. But I can’t help but feel there’s something missing. Have I convinced myself I like this new interactivity more than I actually do?

To answer this question, we must first define interactivity. Rather than its visual appearance, internal working, or the signs and sounds it emits, an object’s interactivity refers to its interactive behaviour as experienced by the user. So in the case of my beloved iPad Mini – the interactivity is not its shape, size or colour. Nor its super-fast processing power. Not even its ability to play video, making the commute slightly more bearable. It is how I experience the behaviour of its user interface.

The root problem

And that’s when I realised; it’s the physical interaction I am missing. I don’t want to make mountains out of molehills. Technology is progressing both at a fantastic rate and in fascinating directions. I just miss touching, moving, pressing physical objects. I don’t want a life that revolves around interactive flat surfaces.

It might seem strange to hear that coming from someone like myself. But I still love getting my nose in a new book to smell the print, to feel the range of stocks and paper weights.

The missing link

Enter haptic technology to save the day. Touch interaction has become the standard for smartphones, tablets, and even desktop computers, so designing algorithms that can convert the visual content into believable tactile sensations has immense potential for enriching the user’s interactive experience.

The question is, how can we as marketers and brands start integrating haptics into our retail displays, advertising, websites, and even products?

Take music as an example. Aside from the quality of CDs being far greater than a compressed mp3 file, consider the ritual of changing over CDs or vinyl. The slight resistance on the volume dial and the assured click of the buttons.

I recently bought a Sonos sound system. I marvel at the level of control. Yet moving small digital sliders up and down within the interface just doesn’t offer the same experience. Maybe it’s nostalgia, but could this and should this be better? After all, this may be the only way you will engage with that brand.

There are opportunities in the retail space, as well. Shoppers visit stores to get that tactile experience. They want to touch and feel products before they buy. Haptics could enable retailers to showcase a broad range of product ‘touch & feel’ experiences on one device without forcing half the shop floor to be dedicated to product showcasing. What if I could decide what fabric I wanted my new armchair wrapped in just by ‘feeling’ different materials on a screen?

Brands need to remember that in a world gone digital mad, it’s sometimes easy to forget that the physical interaction between consumers and products – whether in or out of the retail environment – is still valuable. Those who can bring a tangible element to the experience are onto a winning strategy.

I hope that, in our pursuit of the perfect interactive experience, we don’t drop all physical interaction, otherwise the world will be a dull place indeed.

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