News & Views

Opinion / Beyond the Digital Screen

by Contagious Contributor

R/GA's Anthony Baker asks what the role of Big Data and social marketing could be in connected digital systems, when digital marketing no longer happens where we expect it

This article is the final in a series of inquiries about the future of brands and haptic technologies. Read Christian Haas' take on rewarding touchscreen interactions, Jesús Gorriti's article about The Humble Sense and the Barbarian Group's A Healing Touch by John Finley and Colin Nagy.  

We are living in a fast-paced, democratic age of technology. Gadgets and devices are becoming cheaper by the hour. Touch interfaces and haptic technologies are the trend while sensor-based devices are booming. At the same time, cloud platforms and online services are quickly evolving and adapting to the fast-growing pool of connected devices. 

Brands like AppleAmazonGoogle and Microsoft are investing more than ever in creating platforms that support the always-on, connected experience. Companies are luring customers to buy their products and sign up to their branded services and embrace their ecosystem. It is almost inconceivable nowadays to think of a gadget that can't connect to the internet, allow you to set up a personal profile or sync your data on the go. It is the 'Internet of Things' at its best.

The growth of devices and connected gadgets are also pushing the boundaries of user interfaces and input formulas. Even though haptic and touch technologies were conceived and prototyped before the 80s, they are challenging and changing our social behaviour today more than ever. Just think about how different it was to make a call on a phone without a touch screen or a front facing camera.

Advanced touch interfaces are now the norm on smartphones, tablets and soon to follow will be big screens, televisions and even our kitchen and work office windows. Google and Microsoft for example are betting on creating cross-device applications that are personalized, always connected and synchronized with their cloud services. Devices themselves are becoming less important than the experience itself, big companies are now creating environments. 

Next generation digital marketing should aim at understanding that a single app or product is just a piece of a much bigger puzzle, with huge potential and opportunities for digital and social marketing. A connected environment can tell a story from angles through time and space, making it far more compelling and engaging for consumers.

The connected system help us to hop from device to device, capturing and sharing our data, creating and consuming content. Currently, touch is one of the most accepted ways for interacting with portable devices. However, input and feedback takes many forms. 

We are already seeing hints of a major shift in technology, where the input formats will just continue to grow exponentially. Let's take Microsoft's Kinect sensor for example. It's an affordable, motion tracking sensor, which according to the Guinness World Records 2011, became the fastest selling device on a 60-day period. Instead of touch, it relies on motion tracking and gesture recognition. Not too long ago, the idea of controlling interfaces and devices without touch was only for scientists, visionaries and lab research. In the last couple of years however, the amount of motion based sensors has been steadily increasing. Devices like Leap Motion and Samsung Smart TVs are bringing gesture recognition into the homes of thousands of people around the world, making them part of our daily behaviour.

Interestingly, as haptic technologies, gesture control adoption and accuracy keep increasing, and at the same time, democratization of technology keeps expanding. It is no coincidence that 3D printing and gadget prototyping platforms are booming.  Platforms and electronics development kits like ArduinoTesselRaspberry Pi and.NET Gadgeteer are accessible and affordable. Startups are popping up, now able to create prototype hardware and software, fuelling big leaps in innovation that were simply not possible a few years ago. People are being empowered to bring their ideas to life.

Wearable technology is taking us even further. While SamsungSony and Pebble release their first iterations of smart watches, leveraging the power of the handsets and computers on smaller screens, Thalmic Labs' MYO armband is able to sense one's arm muscle movements. Nike+ Fuelband, created by Nike and R/GA, and other smart wearable devices like Fitbit, capture data and provide feedback in ways that transcend the screen. This new generation of wearable connected devices might not need screens at all. Think how meaningful a red or green LED is for us, a colour pixel, a quick beep or a slight vibration. These examples give us hints that the true evolution might be beyond the digital screen, or at the very least, consider the screen just one of many forms of input and output. 

During the last Google IO conference, a team of engineers placed a variety of sensors all around the Moscone Center in San Francisco. The sensors captured a huge amount of generic data about the environment and the effect of crowds throughout the day. Even if you think of the most basic forms of input/output that we know and understand, you can see that the screen it not indispensable. Think about old pagers that alert you to a new message just by vibrating. Think about traffic lights and battery indicators. Even simple shapes, symbols and sounds can give you lots of information and manipulation feedback without a screen. Consider about how many things we are able to recognise and understand that don't require a screen. It is not difficult to foresee the implications for cars, houses and even entire cities. 

At the rate of development of connected devices, gadgets and wearable technology, it's difficult to expect that the '3 screen size' pattern, phone-tablet-desktop will hold up. Developers and designers already struggle to keep up with the multiple screen sizes and formats. Scaling interfaces up and down and adapting layouts will quickly fall apart. Sensors are becoming cheaper and more ubiquitous. They power wearable devices, and wearable technologies are also quickly evolving and catching up. The future is not one, three, or five screens. It's an infinite amount of ever evolving, replaceable devices that arebalways connected and always communicating around our lives. Maybe the screen itself will become irrelevant in many cases! Devices will simply become means to input and output information around us as we go along.

As a closer and recent example, Google and R/GA London launched the Google Outside campaign a few weeks ago. The digital campaign takes an experience that was only available on the Web and on mobile devices, and brings it to digital outdoors media, all around central London. The device itself is no longer the central focus, and while the campaign still relies on digital screens, it sets the scene for a new set of possibilities, where the world itself can be the medium to provide a branded experience.

Digital and social marketing face a challenging future, but one full of opportunities. It is more than a single product, a website, or an app. It will be a seamless interchange of socially generated digital data running across the wire, in huge quantities, to and from a multitude of 'devices'. Connected device systems are becoming the platforms for all social and digital marketing. Big Data and accurate, real-time data analysis will play a big role understanding the behavioural implications of these connected systems and personal device networks. 

The full branded experience will go beyond the digital screen, it will need to compel our own personal device network and connected systems, go beyond our multiple devices and work with a multitude of input formats, including haptic technologies, gestures, motion and personalised data like heartbeat, temperature, and more complex physical and social behaviour. In the future, devices and hardware will be cheap and replaceable, everything around us will be powered by smart and accurate sensors of every type. The canvas for digital marketing will be the environment itself. Touch, gestures, motion, audio will fuel a new generation of branded experiences, branded gestures, even branded feelings, where screens might not be needed at all!

Anthony Baker is Technology Team Lead and Solutions Architect at R/GA London