Designing For Our Ambient Future.

Everyone’s glued to screens right now, but sooner rather than later, they’ll go away.

Belinda Lanks
August 5, 2016

A brand’s digital identity today typically takes three forms: a website, a mobile app, and social-media messages. But the future of digital isn’t about responsive homepages, the coolest apps, or Facebook versus Twitter versus Snapchat. It’s about leveraging the connectivity that will soon be as ubiquitous, plentiful, and invisible as air. “Digital is already pervasive, but it's nothing compared to what's to come,” says Huge CEO Aaron Shapiro. "It’s not going to be limited to a discrete 'thing'; digital will simply be part of everything."

That may seem like a strange statement coming from an agency with a reputation for building screen-based digital experiences. However, we know that increasingly sophisticated technology—artificial intelligence, beacons, and sensors—will give brands the opportunity in the next few years to provide seamless, on-demand services without their customers having to look at a screen. In this zero-UI world, our movements, voices, and even biometrics will alter the environments of cars, offices, and retail stores according to our needs and preferences. Here are some of the concepts brands should consider as they move toward that ambient future.

Beyond anthropomorphism.

Ever since Apple introduced its smiling “happy Mac” icon in 1984, technologists have been trying to make computers appear friendlier—that is, more human. That extends to Google and its self-driving car, whose adorable front was designed to resemble a face. But Huge’s chief creative officer, Hans Neubert, argues that users no longer need to be charmed by anthropomorphic imagery to adopt new tech. “The way that autonomous driving is being dressed up is laughable,” he says. “Drivers should know that they’re interacting with technology.” The key is for self-driving technology to understand a user’s need for control, while offering the safety overrides to remove human error. (Though this is no straightforward task: In May, a Tesla driver was killed after a technical failure of the automatic braking system.)

Neubert imagines drivers choosing among varying degrees of automation. “We’re already used to eco mode and cruise control,” Neubert says, and Tesla recently announced that its forthcoming Model 3 will have a Ludicrous mode for going from zero to 60 mph in 2.8 seconds. “Now we’re going to get empathy modes correlated to how well a car drives by itself and how much support it gives us when driving.” For the monotonous morning commute, for instance, a driver might choose the “Routine” mode—i.e., the fully automated experience—so she can catch up on email, chat on the phone, or text friends. For carefree driving while vacationing on the California coast, she might select “Fun” to dial back the sensors, so that they only kick in during dire circumstances, such as to avoid a collision. While her 16-year-old son is driving, she might insist on the “Secure” setting, which would allow him to practice his steering but remain under the speed limit at all times.

As part of what Neubert calls “user-experience-driven autonomous driving,” each mode would respond to a driver’s mood and situation when getting behind the wheel, whether it be a desire to hug the road or to let the car do the steering.

Personalized in-store shopping.

It’s easy to see why the convenience of online shopping has wooed customers away from brick-and-mortar stores: E-retail streamlines the buying process, making it easy to search for an item by size and category, and then rationalize the purchase based on high customer ratings. So what happens when retailers combine the information shoppers get online with the traditional-retail benefits of touching and trying on clothing?

Fitting room

Fashion brands like Rebecca Minkoff and Ralph Lauren have already introduced “smart dressing rooms” capable of tracking RFID-tagged clothing and showcasing different sizes, colors, and recommended items on a touchscreen display. Trackers also record what items the customer didn’t buy and send a message offering the chance to purchase online. Emily Wengert, Huge’s VP of user experience, envisions that changing-room mirrors will soon double as digital screens showing not only size and color variations but online reviews, stocking information, and pairing or styling suggestions. By providing all the data customers might turn to their phones for, the store keeps shoppers engaged in a memorable in-store retail experience.

Another tactic for hybridizing the online and in-store shopping models: Pulling the items from a customer’s digital basket from the physical rack, so they’re waiting for her in the changing room. Macy’s, for instance, experimented with an app that let customers select swimsuits on screen and have them delivered via chute to changing rooms. “Customers shop within windows—the 20 minutes before meeting my friend, or the 40 minutes before picking up my daughter from ballet class,” Wengert says. “So if our mission is to try to get customers to try on more, faster, with a greater success and likelihood to buy, then packing more into those windows, while making it feel more serviced, amplifies the experience itself.”

A productivity boost to get workers home earlier.

With the endless distractions of meetings, office banter, and the Internet, our jobs now bleed into precious personal time. Rather than introducing more technology to further fracture workers’ attention, Sophie Kleber, Huge’s executive director of innovation and brands, posits that ambient technology could help establish more productive office environments, so employees work a healthier number of hours.

Employee Productivity

Smart office buildings already exist. At the Edge in Amsterdam, for instance, sensors detect employees as they move through the office and tweak the lighting and temperature to workers’ preferences. But it needn’t stop there. Employers could track workers’ biometrics to improve concentration levels and physical well-being. Some businesses already provide wearable gadgets, such as Fitbits, in their corporate wellness programs to encourage physical activity (and lower health-care costs). In the future, companies will be able to also track workers’ blood-sugar and hydration levels and offer on-the-spot relief in the form of a roving cart dispensing healthy snacks. “It’s not expensive to have someone walk through the office with an app to see which employees need a pick-me-up,” Kleber says.

Nothing gratuitous, please.

The screen, as illustrated by the above examples, won’t always be the dominant interface. But the user should remain front and center of any AI-enhanced experience, and brands need to resist the temptation of using new technology for novelty’s sake. Should a luxury fashion brand embed a sensor in its marquee product, so that each time its owner walks into the flagship store, she’s greeted with her name flashing on stadium-size displays? What might at first blush seem cool can also feel like an unwanted violation of anonymity. “I think we’re in a phase where we’re evolving from gratuitous play with digital into true, meaningful application to the product set at hand,” Wengert says. “We’re asking questions like, How do we make shopping and retail amazing? Not, How do we get a headline out of the digital we put in our stores?”

Illustrations by John McLaughlin

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