The power of tactile: How digital is about to go more than skin deep

It seems like a joke at first, something a brand would announce as its new product on April Fool’s Day. But no, you’re not imagining it. People really are going crazy for a gaming product made almost entirely of cardboard.

The Nintendo Labo has to be one of the weirdest tech products of the year. It’s a DIY kit that allows you to build objects such as keyboards and robots out of cardboard, and control them using your Switch console.

Maybe Nintendo is onto something. Is there a parent alive who hasn’t watched their child throw aside a shiny new toy to play with the box it came in? Consoles have gone through generation after generation, but low-tech pastimes like plasticine, Lego, Barbies and silkworms are as popular today as they were when I was a kid.

There’s just something about the power of touch that does it for us at any age. As convenient as Kindles are, they can’t quite replace that familiar book smell for some people. Moleskin notebooks and bullet journals live comfortably alongside Google Calendar and digital organisational tools. And as much as we all like to settle in with some Netflix on the couch, there’s nothing like watching a blockbuster in 4D and having your other senses engaged.

No wonder companies like Nintendo are finding ways to add an analogue dimension to their digital products. Businesses have been attempting to merge the physical and digital for years now, with varying levels of success. Those digital natives who’ve grown up in a world defined by smartphones and the cloud value tactile experiences more than ever.

Until recently, however, businesses have had limited ways of introducing that tactility to their digital experiences. The convergence of several technologies is quickly changing that. This is good news for organisations looking for new ways to connect with customers, because it turns out that the best way of making customers feel is to literally make them feel.

Enter haptic technology, the next frontier in user engagement.

Feeling good

The Beach Boys got it right. Good vibrations are the key to feeling great. It’s no coincidence that the organisations experimenting with haptic technology are the same ones that excel at creating experiences that engage you on an emotional level.

Not satisfied with owning and running the Happiest Place on Earth, Disney is experimenting with ways to make it even happier through ultra-realistic VR and AR. Researchers for the company have created  a Force Jacket that can mimic physical sensations like hugging.

One of my favourite brands, Audi, did away with buttons completely in its A8 model in favour of a touch screen with haptic feedback. The result is that you feel as if you’re driving something out of a sci-fi series. And it’s much more stylish than KITT ever was. Meanwhile, Ford is designing windows that could allow blind people to experience the passing scenery for themselves.

The automotive industry is also leading the way when it comes to immersive customer journeys. Already, people can visit virtual showrooms to play with a car’s design and dimensions. With haptic feedback, you might be able to digitally test-drive the car yourself, as well as get an accurate feel for how it manoeuvres and what the leather seats feel like against your skin.

As cool as these use cases are, they also massively undersell the potential of haptic – and other complementary physical technologies. Because the successful convergence of digital and real-world that haptic represents could signal a sea change for how we engage with the world around us.

Making sense of the world

I often say that when digital stops being a thing, it becomes everything. In other words, when technology starts to embed itself into every aspect of our lives, it stops being technology and starts being simply another part of the human experience.

Are we there yet? I’d argue we’re pretty close, with IoT, haptic technology, embeddables and 3D printing blurring the lines between where we end and where the tech begins. And it’s all down to the physicalising of the digital world.

Of all the senses, touch might be the most central to us as humans, shaping who we are from the moment we’re born. Of all the bodily sensations, it’s the earliest to develop and the basis from which the other senses, as well as cognitive development, take shape. We feel before we see and hear; and some people go on to live full lives without ever developing their sight or hearing. 

Imagine the possibilities if we use digital to improve the way we interact with the physical world. What if amputees could 3D print their own prosthetics and not only have them perfectly fitted, but receive from them the same sensory experience as a fully functioning limb? What if you could perform remote surgery with the same precision as an on-site procedure because you’re able to feel every subtle vibration of the process? What if blind people could buy a wristband that gives them access to sonar as easily as purchasing and interacting with a Fitbit?

And finally, what if you could tweak a “toy” like the Nintendo Labo to control your wheelchair? It’s simple, cost-effective, and it’s already being done. Maybe we should stop thinking outside the box, and start handling it instead.

What other potential use cases do you see for haptic feedback? How do you think tactile experiences could be used in your industry?

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