News & Views

Opinion / A Healing Touch

by Contagious Contributor

The Barbarian Group's John Finley and Colin Nagy consider haptic tech and physical therapy

This article is the third in a series of inquiries about the future of brands and haptic technologies. Read Christian Haas' take on rewarding touchscreen interactions and Jesús Gorriti's article about The Humble Sense.

The notion of brand has evolved considerably in the last decade. No longer is a brand experience limited to a typeface and visual identity; it's the aggregation of micro experiences that create an overall feeling. Everything from the tone of the customer service reply on Twitter, swatches of fabric in the waiting room chairs, the scent in a room, or the hue of the overhead lighting contributes to our vast and fuzzy brand concept. As technology progresses, more and more elements will continue to figure into this mix, making the notion of brands and their relationships to consumers more complex and more interesting.

Branding has always attempted to appeal to the senses of the prevalent mediums. Early on, there was more focus on vibrant and differentiated visual design -- think propaganda posters in a war effort. Sound then played a role with the rise of radio, turning into the rise of television. With the rise of digital mediums, new disciplines such as user experience (think the intuitive way devices are used without a manual) rise to blend sense and experience.

Often, there's a concerted effort to appeal to as many senses as possible to convey a cohesive brand story: Singapore Airlines even uses a distinct aroma that is in the flight attendant's perfume, the fresh towels served before meals in flight, as well as on board the planes.

One particular area of development leverages one of the most powerful human sensations: touch. Haptic feedback is a basic thing: perhaps the most commonly experienced example is the lines on the side of the highway that make your car vibrate violently if you're in danger of running off the road. Early home-based haptic feedback came through the video game market (think vibrating controllers) and evolved quickly in the mobile device handset markets, with brands using vibration to offer the feel of activating a button when there's nothing there but the glass of the touchscreen.

Other recent examples of haptic branding range from the lo-fi to the futuristic. Carling, the beer brand, has a square, taller glass that differentiates it from other pints. Lernstift is a pen that coaches young writers through a vibration when the shape of a letter is off, or when there's a grammatical or spelling mistake. Move, by ElectricFoxy, is a prototype piece of clothing with sensors that coaches you through yoga, pilates and other sports poses, alerting you when you are out of alignment. Disney research's new project, AIREAL, 'aims to enhance a users' perception of virtual 3D elements, by creating physical forces a user can feel in free air.' Using 3D-printed nozzles that shoot compressed air at precise intervals, the company could simulate a multitude of experiences, even a butterfly flapping on someone arm, made out of thin air.

But when tasked with improving a brand experience through haptic technology, our main question was how can it be truly additive and bring something new to an experience, rather than being just a cool piece of technology? After looking at several sectors, we arrived at an interesting space: medical devices.

Doctors are busier than ever, and spend less and less time with their patients. People come into the doctor's office looking for answers, only to spend a few minutes face-to-face then head back into the wilderness of WebMD, blogs, and folk wisdom. Even patients of physical therapy, who come back for repeat sessions with their therapist, are still expected to go home and remember everything they learned. Oh, and they need to accurately repeat their exercises on schedule. It's a lot to ask of a person who may have been in a serious accident, is in considerable pain, and might not have the support network some of us enjoy.

A networked device could be worn by such patients in order to make the process faster, less painful, and, above all, safer. The device would be worn after a sports injury to measure all aspects of an athlete's leg movement, for example. Its flex sensors know when movement is taking place, and the position of all the joints involved. From here, observations can be made to know how far the person has walked, their range of motion, and even if their joints hurt when bad weather is a-comin'. Relevant data can even be sent to the therapist for analysis and patient education. Over time, patterns emerge where there used to be only vague answers to doctors' questions.

But the real amazing stuff happens when the patient's device starts to talk back and respond to the movements it is measuring. Tiny vibration motors embedded within the fabric tell the patient when they are over-extending their prescribed regimens. They buzz to remind them that it's time to stop walking and rest and elevate the leg. They work with the patient's exercises at home, marking progress through each step in the process. As the patient uses the device, it learns it, and as it learns it pushes you to go farther. The device knows the patient is getting better.

Back at the doctor's office, reports on progress are now matched up with the qualitative responses from the patient. Time between therapy sessions is punctuated by emails from the device linking to YouTube videos the therapist has recorded. Notifications are pushed to the patient's phone when the device senses he or she has reached the exercise goal. And the buzzing on your leg to remind you to stretch and move after a few too many minutes at the desk couldn't feel more normal.

John Finley and Colin Nagy are interaction designer and Executive Director of Media, respectively, at The Barbarian Group.