The Merging of Digital and ‘Real Life’

Where are you, TacoCopter?

OK, OK. Don’t get too excited. From what I’ve been able to dredge up on the Interwebs, we’re all probably years away from having our Mexi-vittles air-dropped at the touch of a smartphone. But the hoax/joke/cutting-edge tech-concept did get me thinking about what might be the next frontier: the merging of digital and “real life.” Anywhere.

Ever since the GPS-enabled smartphone came on the scene in the mid-2000’s, developers have been working on ways to use the fact that they could tap into our locations to deliver services to our phones. The first wide-scale adoption of location-based apps probably came with services like Foursquare, which allowed us to “check in” to real-world locations so that our friends would know where we were (and so we could get bragging rights for being there). According to comScore, today almost 17 million people use these services.

But location-based check-in services haven’t allowed us to change anything going on in the real world (except maybe motivating our friends to get off their butts and head over to where we are), and they certainly haven’t been able to change our own physical states. But some new tech that’s starting to show up (either in “concept” form like TacoCopter or in “RL” in the form of proximity-based social media) points to a future where the whole idea of distinguishing between being “online” and “offline” will seem as quaint as using a modem (remember those?).

Probably the biggest force blurring the lines between online and offline is the rise of the tablet. And by “tablet” I mean iPad…currently Apple owns more than 75 percent of the U.S. tablet market and has sold tens of millions of the devices. In fact, during Q4 2011, Apple sold 15.4 million iPad 2s and around 3 million iPad 3s just between March 16 and March 19! It’s not quite “ubiquity,” but we’re getting pretty close.

I point to the iPad as the harbinger of the mobile age rather than the smartphone because while smartphones have the capability to deliver loads of nifty stuff to us, the smaller form factor means that they’re not capable of standing in as substitutes for traditional computers. Tablets, on the other hand, with their bigger screens and adult-sized on-screen keyboards, are useful enough to get many of us to ditch laptops. And, as they get more powerful and start to acquire better file management systems (ahem…Apple?) that allow us to better manage our myriad documents – cloud-based or not – they will probably end up dominating the market previously held by laptops (though some will disagree, even in the face of the evidence right in front of them in coffee shops everywhere). And why not? They’re smaller, lighter, have longer battery life, start up faster, and are a heck of a lot more convenient to carry around than a bulky, clamshell battery-eater.

In fact, as anyone with a tablet soon finds out, once you have one, they’re tough to put down and soon become the go-to device for everything digital in your life. From music and video (Hulu, Netflix, Pandora, Spotify, iTunes) to books (iBooks, Kindle) to photos (iPhoto, Instagram) to work documents (the iWork suite) to finding stuff to do via any one of the many location-based review/discovery services, tablets have a way of worming their way into your life to the point where it’s hard to remember what life was like without one (even to the point of the FAA finally deciding to take a “fresh look” at banning them during takeoff and landing due to traveler complaints).

In some ways, the fact that tablets are becoming ubiquitous life accessories may mean that the line between “mobile” and “desktop” is blurring, too. When the majority of users access the web or use apps on “mobile” devices, all computing will become “mobile,” making the distinction as meaningless as worrying about distinguishing between laptop and tower computers.

As marketers, we need to take a hard look at where things are going and begin shifting our mindset away from mobile vs. desktop (not-mobile?) distinctions. In a future where everyone is accessing digital services any time and any where, incorporating features like location-awareness, real-world interaction, and mapping into our marketing efforts is going to become the norm, not something relegated to a “mobile division.” Even the most entrenched “traditional marketers” who focus on TV can’t ignore what’s going on when (and it’s going to happen…the trend vectors are already there) their audiences start to leave the living room for up-close-and-personal tablet-based entertainment that cries out for interactive (rather than passive) engagement and on-demand viewing. Even if people do plop down on the couch to watch television, they’re probably going to do so by accessing shows via Internet TV rather than traditional cable. And they’re also probably going to do so with a tablet or a smartphone in their laps.

Recently-discovered patents from Apple start to give us a glimpse of where the future’s headed. While Apple’s not saying anything for now, these new patents showcase a technology that basically allows you to replace your dumb remote control with your iPad or iPhone by taking a picture of your remote and having iCloud send you a “virtual” version to use on your mobile device. Pair this with the heavily-rumored-but-sure-to-come-at-some-point iTV, and you’ve got a platform that allows for branded experiences unlike anything we’ve experienced before, with mobile device and TV truly working in concert.

I know it’s hard to stop thinking about “mobile” vs. desktop computing (I couldn’t help using “mobile” a number of times in the previous couple of paragraphs!), but that’s where we’re heading. As digital marketers, it’s imperative that we start studying what’s working now in the “mobile” world and begin to incorporate that learning into our creative and our account planning. Even if “TacoCopter” is a joke today, tomorrow it might just be the new normal as the barriers between “real life” vs. “virtual,” “online” vs. “offline,” and “mobile” vs. “desktop” finally crumble like an air-dropped taco.

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