Jussi Ahola

Curious humanist

Brands in the era of ubiquitous computing

The interaction between humans and computers still today is largely based on either stationary or mobile devices that rely on screens for output and keyboards, mice, and touch-screens for input. The screen displays a graphical interface that can be manipulated, directly or indirectly, by the user. The interaction takes place through a device that is something visible and tangible, but also obtrusive in the sense you often have to go out of your way to do something you want to get done.

This visible nature of contemporary computing technology makes branding, both of the devices and interfaces displayed through them, pretty straightforward. Materials and their tactile properties, form factors, and colour schemes can be manipulated and logos placed where needed. This is pretty much the way that other physical objects are branded too; just think of cars, home appliances, or a can of Coca-Cola.

The evolution of computing into ubiquitous and less obtrusive systems, however, will change how branding can be done. Often also termed ambient intelligence or the internet of things, this new paradigm is characterized by interfaces and devices that are small, effectively invisible, and seamlessly embedded into the environment. So the question that arises is this: where do you put your logo when you don’t have anything visible to put it into?

Let us suppose for a moment that version 2.0 of Google Glass won’t bear that much physical similarity to a pair of eyeglasses (like version 1.0 shown in the video below), but be more like a pair of contact lenses.

Where do the designers at Google put their logo? How do they display a coherent image of their brand to people who are not using their device when they don’t have the luxury of conveying it through form and colour factors in something visible?

Turns out that the brand no longer lives mainly in the visible attributes of the product, but rather in the interactions that the user has with the product. In this coming era, these interactions will increasingly become voice-based, kinetic, haptic, and gestural. That already-renowned phrase ok glass becomes the main vehicle for communicating the brand and extremely important in this sense. If different gestural interactions, such as eye blinks, eye movements, or eyebrow twitches will be used to interact with the system, those will become equally important and their social acceptability needs to be accounted for in the design: a person who is constantly rolling their eyes might not be most desirable conversation partner.

The same applies to other products in this new era. The brand of a lighting-system that is controlled through handclaps lives in those claps. When you interact through some tom-cruise-in-minority-report-like gestures with a computer system, those gestures become pivotal in shaping the brand. Systems that operate more through context-awareness then deliberate interaction, such as a heating system that automatically adjusts room temperature based on your body temperature and the time of the day, present a different case as there aren’t any interactions that could convey the brand; perhaps in those cases the brand can be conveyed through some subtle feedback that the system provides.

In the era of ubiquitous computing, brands will not only be displayed in the visible properties of the products you make, but they will also be acted out by your users when they interact with your product.