Let’s get physical - why digital has its limits

Rowley: Let’s get physical – why digital has its limits

Can we use modern technology to help consumers access a physical interaction rather than replace it?

Scrolling through Amazon Prime Video the other day, I stumbled upon An Impossible Project, a documentary following Dr Florian Kaps, or ‘Doc’ to his friends, a man on a nerdish quest to resurrect the Polaroid camera.

The Polaroid Camera could print out its own physical photo seconds after the shot was taken. A brand titan, it survived for 80 years, before reaching a sticky end on 9th January 2007. On that day, the coup de grace was delivered, probably unwittingly, by Steve Jobs announcing the release of the iPhone.

But ‘Doc’ wasn’t having any of it. Long fascinated with analogue technology, Doc was driven by nostalgia for the days of physical media and its tactile qualities. He spoke passionately of the chemical smell of Polaroid’s developing fluid and the buzz of the electric motor as it ejected its square, white-bordered image.

So, Doc bought the old Polaroid factory weeks away from its demolition and set about assembling a crack team of technicians and marketers to spend what was to become nearly a decade reinventing the Polaroid camera for the digital age.

But although Doc is essentially an eccentric scientist, his soapboxing on the importance of physicality in our media interactions does reveal an important consideration in marketing, media and communications.

Namely, the limits of digitisation.

From analog to digital

The advent of the internet in the 90s saw our physical world become digitised: converted into ones and zeroes and uploaded on to the worldwide web.  The internet became a parallel ‘no-place’ that seemingly had no location, which meant that ‘Skeuomorphism’ reigned supreme.

Skeuomorphism is the act of using recognisable physical forms to help guide our interactions with new tech. Hence, file icons looked like manila folders, we ‘copied and pasted’ text from canvas to canvas, and unwanted documents were dumped in the ‘trash’.

We needed old-school stationery analogies, it seemed, to navigate our way into a disembodied future.

From digital to virtual

Fast-forward 30 years and we’ve moved on from the digitised life to a virtualised life. Now we are now a step removed from reality again. We download avatars, exchange crypto and mint non-fungible tokens (NFTs).

With even less need for physicality, we’re now trading in items and collateral that cannot, and have never, existed in the real-world.

In its most extreme form, this is the metaverse of Neal Stephenson and William Gibson envisaged. The substitution of the real-world with the virtualised world.

But I would argue we are now butting up against some limitations of virtualisation.

In a world of virtual abstraction and ethereal incorporation, we would do well to understand the underlying sentiment of Doc’s quest: to reinstate the sensorial element of products, both as a service to the brand, but by extension, also its marketing.

From virtual back to physical

Though rampant in its acceleration, technology has laid bare the limits of mediated representation. Despite being of value, attempts to provide an imitation experience to educate us on its real-world equivalent can only go so far.

For instance, it’s become apparent the virtual test drive cannot recreate the feel of the accelerator pedal and the smell of the leather seats. Only an adjunct, never a replacement.

Sure, we can use the paint company’s app to view our kitchen in ‘Ocean Barley’, but we don’t know what it will really look like until we get it slapped on the walls, because the context of the real-world is everything.

And don’t forget the then-famous, now infamous, tweet about the inherent value of NFTs that encapsulated all that was misconceived about the enterprise. Namely, the assumption that virtual value could trump physical value: “If you make an NFT of a real diamond, and the diamond itself gets destroyed in a fire tomorrow, you still have the same asset” it went. A tweet for the ages, indeed.

In short, we’ve uncovered the ‘state line’ of the virtual world beyond which it has no jurisdiction. We now understand that which can be rendered digitally, and that which requires a sensorial interaction.

None of this is to say that we should return to the pre-internet era of rotary dial phones and cathode ray TVs. Rather that we live in a physical world and always will.

Ever since the evolution of opposable thumbs, giving rise to what anthropologists call the ‘precision grip’, we have been an inherently tactile species. We needed haptic feedback to feel that the flint axe had penetrated its prey. We needed to smell smoke on the wind to know competing tribes were nearby.

This seems contrary to a future many prophesied. Sci-fi film Forbidden Planet predicted we would gain the technology to live life ‘without instrumentation’ and become beings that could control their environment by our minds alone.

Echoing the sentiment, when Xbox introduced the Kinect in 2010, it was deemed a revolution in gaming as players now could control the action using their body alone – a wave of their hands, a kick of their leg. But by 2017, it had been discontinued, after a lack of support amongst the software community. Meanwhile, the Xbox’ chunky controller, with its multiple punchable buttons and ergonomic hand grips, remains to this day.

Even in modern day, we are still the cavemen of the precision grip. We still prefer the thunk of buttons and the click and snick of dials to know the machine is working.

Physicality in omnichannel marketing

We often use the term Omnichannel in our marketing to signal our desire to fully-integrate our channels. But it’s so much more than just ensuring we have a plethora of options on our plan, and that they cross-reference each other’s existence for the sake of continuity, consistency and cumulative reach.

It’s also about making sure that we are using differing avenues where customers can gain the best exposure to differing aspects of the product.

For some brands, there will be those elements that cannot be communicated by digital or virtual alone, but rather can only be experienced through haptic feedback. Feel the weight. Squeeze the button. Pick at the stitching.

In marketing, then, we should think beyond digital and into physical. Retail. Sampling. Outdoor special builds. Don’t forget about showcasing materials – the smell, the taste, the sound. Then, and only then, we can bring the digital and virtual back into the mix, and ask: can we use modern technology to help consumers access a physical interaction rather than replace it?

And so back to An Impossible Project, with a minor spoiler alert. The Polaroid camera has now returned. Currently, the factory is producing over 1 million films a year. Now it is bluetooth enabled and optimised for the Instagram generation [Instagram’s original logo, by the way, was based on a Polaroid camera].

Most important, it still fires physical photos out of the front seconds after the image has been taken, and now the image develops in record time. The connectivity has been improved, but also the chemistry too. Digital and physical in support of another.

We don’t live in a virtual world. We live in the real world. But there is a sweet spot where we can harness the best of both worlds.

Phil Rowley is head of futures at Omnicom Media Group UK and the author of Hit the Switch: the Future of Sustainable Business. He writes a monthly column for The Media Leader about the future of media.

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