See, Touch, and Feel in Digital Marketing

Looking at the recent CES show through the lens of a digital marketer, I feel compelled to offer my perspective. Noticeably smaller crowds made both Vegas in general and the show floor itself a little bit easier to navigate. Transportation didn’t required a half-hour wait. Still, three full days of walking the floor wasn’t nearly enough to see everything. I uncovered a few interesting trends, though.

Netbooks Generate Hype

The gadget blogs have been all over this one, noting this new class of mini-laptop fills a void between existing small laptops and ultra-portable mobile PCs and mobile phones. Growth in this category, combined with an increase in Web use via mobile phones, is yet another indicator of the dawn of ubiquitous computing and hyper-connectivity.

For marketers, however, it means additional fragmentation in graphic capabilities, processor speed, screen resolution, and orientation. Sites, experiences, and ads developed for the Web will need to account for these new device categories and screen capabilities. That ultra-slick Flash site, for example, may not be all that slick on a tiny netbook with a relatively slow processor. It is yet another device in a parade of newly connected platforms that we must consider and develop for. Liquid assets that can move seamlessly from screen to screen will be key and may require a reinvention in concept and user-experience development processes.

Natural User Interface Revolution?

CES 2008 brought an explosion of touchscreen phones as manufacturers ramped up to compete with the iPhone. This year brought continued proliferation, ranging from LG’s Dick Tracy-style wrist phones to an entire section of desktop PCs featuring touch interfaces at the Hewlett-Packard booth. I watched as a couple of businessmen struggled to navigate the HP Web site using the touch interface. I wasn’t surprised at the struggle but rather at the fact that HP hadn’t developed specific experiences optimized for the touchscreen. To be fair, there may have been some touch-specific sites available, just not that I saw during the few minutes I was in the booth. It was a perfect illustration of the need to change site design to accommodate the switch from mouse to fingers. The poor guys had difficulty clicking on text links and working drop-down menus, mostly because the type was too small for finger clicking. A variety of sites have developed versions specifically for the iPhone, and many of those best practices will translate to touch interfaces on other platforms. Think bigger buttons and links. There’s also no touch equivalent (yet) for a mouseover state, so interfaces that change or expand on rollover will need to adapt.

One possibility is that gestures will replace mouseovers and the like. One could imagine the multi-finger touch gestures that Apple rolled out on its newest laptop lines applying to this scenario. Open-air gesture recognition received its fair share of attention at the show as well. Hitachi demonstrated an impressive system of intuitive gesture controls for a home entertainment system, while several other booths featured other gesture-based experimentation.

Haptics Are Happening

Haptic technology is basically the application of force feedback to create a sense of touch with digital experiences. Touchscreen phones that click when pressing keys or buttons are introducing this technology to the mainstream. But the BlackBerry Storm and similar phones are just the tip of the iceberg. TN Games has launched a vest that vibrates violently with every shot during game play, creating a more realistic experience for the player. One demo at Immersion Corp.’s booth featured several different textures displayed on a single touchscreen. As you moved your fingers over the different textures, the screen vibrates at different frequencies, creating a realistic textile feel. This video doesn’t do it justice, but you can at least see the different textures. Continued innovation here will bring even more realism to digital experiences, whether they happen on a PC, a mobile phone, or another platform.

TV Continues to Look More Web Like

The big news was a slew of prototypes based on a unique partnership announced last August between Intel and Yahoo that’s aimed at bringing widget functionality to the television. About a dozen major manufacturers have signed on to support, and they were all demonstrating concept TVs equipped with widgets to surf MySpace, browse Flickr photos, and more.

But the interactive TV news didn’t end there. Tru2way demos appeared at several TV manufacturers’ booths, as well as at Intel’s and Motorola’s. Tru2way is the relatively new consumer-facing brand for CableLabs’ OCAP (define) technology — a standard operating system of sorts that will power next-generation set-top boxes and promises to allow developers to create interactive experiences that will run across a variety of operators and boxes. The hope is that this will bring scale to interactive TV experiences. At a minimum, Tru2way, alongside efforts from Canoe Ventures, should create certain standard ad formats and key interactive functionality at scale across operators.

Video Is the New Text

Clive Thompson, recently postulated in “Wired” that the new language of YouTube has reinvented video. “DIY tools for shooting, editing, and broadcasting video aren’t just changing who uses the medium. They’re changing how we use it. We’re developing a new language of video,” he wrote. Powerful stuff, and I couldn’t agree more. I read that piece days before heading to Vegas. As I wandered the floor and saw cheap HD video camera after cheap HD video camera, I couldn’t help but think there was a whole other revolution in the making here. Cheap digital video production and broadcast has changed how we use video, but the next leap will be cheap HD cameras that are rugged and water resistant. True life-caching won’t be far away, and one wonders if the largely text-based social networking functionality of today will rapidly yield to video-heavy social networks over the next few years. If so, marketers seeking real conversations with people would have more evidence that video spots costing six-figures to produce aren’t a brand’s ultimate expression. Rather, much less expensive, simple, and authentic communication may well be the spot of the future.

Related reading

Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.