Now You’re Talking

Years ago, at the Carnegie Mellon University School of Design, I met two futurists who inspired me with their visions for design and branding. One innovation in particular captured my imagination – digital packaging that could change its appearance based on a consumer’s broadcast signal. This idea set my mind racing with all the possibilities for creating personalized packaging based on individuals’ tastes and preferences.

In 2002, millions of moviegoers experienced a similar awe-inspiring feeling while watching the sci-fi thriller “Minority Report.” In a scene where John Anderton (played by Tom Cruise) activates scanners in a futuristic retail store, multiple displays offer personalized wardrobe recommendations as he moves through the store. Watching the scene rekindled the excitement that I felt as a student at CMU, discussing the potential of technologically enhanced, immersive environments.

The advancements needed to make these futuristic visions reality seemed like distant possibilities only a few years ago, but now seem inevitable in our always-on, device-enhanced world. Technologies that enable specialized brand experiences in immersive environments are becoming more sophisticated every day. The question marketers should be asking is: How do we create a personalized user experience across multiple display formats while maintaining a brand’s integrity?

A good place to start is with three technologies that could feasibly deliver these types of experiences: Bluetooth, near-field communication (NFC), and e-paper.

Every day, tech pundits evangelize devices that will “speak” to each other and handle complex tasks at the push of a button. More than likely, the “language” these devices use to communicate will rely on short-range communications protocols like Bluetooth and NFC that are based on low-power radio frequencies and require simple authentication between devices. There’s hardly a smartphone in existence that doesn’t have Bluetooth already installed. The consortium that sets standards for Bluetooth technology estimates 2 billion compatible devices will be shipped this year. With an effective range of up to 328 feet for some Bluetooth devices, any fixed installation, vending machine, or showroom piece can become a vocal brand advocate. That’s where a familiar brand voice and compelling messaging becomes so important.

Using Bluetooth, brands will have the capability to start conversations with interested consumers, attracting the attention of passersby with a familiar jingle or vibration pattern from their mobile device. Once a consumer decides to engage with a chatty vending machine or seductive showpiece, delivering brand messaging that is fresh, timely, and coordinated with other brand touch points is crucial. Devices using the latest Bluetooth technology can even connect to multiple devices at the same time. This could create opportunities for differentiated messaging delivered to several consumers within range, enabling a one-to-one experience with anyone interested in what the evangelizing object has to say. Once people come into close proximity with a vocal branded object, NFC technology can trigger even richer interactions.

Although Bluetooth has been widely adopted, NFC technology is still struggling to gain awareness in the market. However, NFC’s ability to enable more personalized interactions based on user preferences shouldn’t be overlooked. Consumers can launch applications, activate specific tasks (such as mobile payments), and even send data between NFC-enabled devices. Companies like Tagstand and Flomio have created “tags” – specially designed decals that can be applied to the surface – to trigger pre-programmed actions in mobile devices, such as uploading content to social networks or changing the settings on the devices themselves. Since the tags can be designed with a brand’s identity and graphic motif, they can be applied to products to make them instantly interactive and capable of sharing information with curious consumers. With two-way communication based on consumer preferences, it’s possible the interactive tag could trigger an entire display to change right in front of a consumer’s eyes.

E-paper – a thin, flat sheet of plastic that uses low-voltage electricity to control the display of pigments embedded within its layer – has the potential to make surfaces that change based on the viewer’s likes and preferences as common as billboards are today. Currently, e-paper technologies are being used in e-readers like the Kindle and even for digital watch faces, like the Pebble, which I wrote about in June. It could eventually enable the athletes on Wheaties cereal boxes to come to life or enhance the experience of opening a present from Tiffany’s with an animated video message on the inside of a gift box.

In a world of enhanced surfaces that respond to viewers’ tastes, brands focused on delivering a cohesive and compelling experience will consider every detail of how, when, and where they engage with consumers. Every element of a brand’s identity, especially its voice and messaging, will play a role in attracting consumers and creating differentiated appeals based on what information people are willing to make public and accessible through their mobile devices. The next few years will be an exciting time for brands as they explore new ways of transferring their identities and extending their messaging to previously inanimate objects, creating experiences that make real life look more like the stuff of science fiction.

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