Six features of connected products

In terms of game-changing opportunities for marketing and product development in our time, there are few bigger than products that come out of the box digitally enabled.

What happens when everything from your car to a Barbie are designed as sensory devices, connected to the world, with built-in communication channels? What happens when all our products live and breath data, drawing it in and feeding it back out?

This isn’t science fiction, it’s happening right now. And after looking at a few examples of innovators in this space, I think it might be possible to identify six features sets that will be core to the wave of digital product innovation we can expect over the coming years:

  • BUNDLED - Unlocking exclusive digital experiences.
  • SENSITIVE - Collecting and interpreting data.
  • TALKATIVE - Sharing and broadcasting.
  • RESPONSIVE - Responsive to the world.
  • UNIQUE - Personalized to you, and evolves over time based on customer interaction with product.
  • PLATFORMS - Platforms not products.

Although you’ll see many products implement multiple features from this set, some focus on just one.


The concept of bundling is simple: offer digital content and experiences exclusively to product owners, as a selling point for the product itself. This can be even more powerful when that access is provided on top of something already being used. i.e. imagine if you bought an MP3 player and it unlocked an exclusive Facebook music feature, only available to owners of that particular device.

Kids are natural born early adopters, and the competition for their attention is fierce, so it’s no surprise to see some of the leading edge examples of bundled digital experiences exist in toys marketed to tots barely out of diapers.

For example, Disney’s Clickables product range is designed to connect directly Disney’s Pixie Hollow virtual world, home to 25 million avatars created by young fans. Collectable physical charms and toys unlock special items and features in the Pixie Hollow world. And if you bump bracelets with your friend in the real world, your avatars automatically become friends in the Pixie Hollow virtual world.

This is obviously an very cool innovation in itself, but what’s possibly more important is that kids are going to grow up thinking its natural that if they bump their toys together, things will happen in a digital space. That’s a revolutionary shift in thought, the expectation that physical objects have a digital life beyond, and the two are inseparably connected.

All about Clickables | Pixie Hollow | Disney Fairies.jpg

Disney is not the only one with this idea. In fact, Webkinz, Barbie Girl MP3 Players, Build-A-Bear, and even the hugely popular Beanie Bears are all featuring unlockable bundled virtual worlds as a key feature of their physical products.


Not to be outdone, McDonald’s has one of the most innovative bundling strategies I’ve seen yet. They launched their McWorld virtual world back in 2008, which looks like this:

2918760400-4c33aefd0e-500366.jpg (467×285).jpg

For McDonald’s, digital bundling is now integral to their hugely popular Happy Meals. When you buy Happy Meals now, kids don’t just get a toy, they get a unique code. That code unlocks exclusive content in the McWorld virtual world. For example, Star Wars Happy Meals include a Jedi toy, but they also include a code that unlocks an exclusive lightsaber feature within the Darth Vader quest on

Not content to stop there, the codes McDonald’s are bundling often unlock limited edition content on partner sites as well as their own. Recent promotions have seen codes unlocking content on the Build-A-Bear site, Beanie Bear’s BeanieLand, and even the LEGO Batman Xbox 360 game. McDonald’s recognized that while building membership in their virtual world could pay off long-term, it’s also important to “fish where the fish are” and ensure they are providing kids with exclusive content on other hugely popular destinations worlds.


No, sensitive products aren’t easily offended. Rather, many connected products are equipped with various sensors and inputs in order to collect and interpret data about you, about itself, and about it’s environment.

Nike+ enabled shoes gather data via an accelerometer.

nike-shoes-fl-3.jpg (400×300).jpg

Botanicalls uses moisture sensors to interpret the condition of the plant’s soil.

botanicalls.jpg (580×386).jpg

FedEx Senseaware gathers temperature, light, and location data.

FedExSenseawareTrackingDevice.jpg (515×337).jpg

All these products are geared to sense and aggregate in order to deliver their added value functions.


For those products that are sensitive, their next key feature is to communicate:

To you
Botanicalls will give you a call or a Tweet when it needs to be watered.

original.jpg (232×508).jpg

To a community
The Withings WiFi scale can be set to communicate weigh-ins to friends on Twitter, for a bit of public peer-pressure.

The Quantified Self.jpg

EcoDrive and Nike+ stats aggregate to help show you how your community is performing and to allow you to participate in challenges.

453224.1-lg.jpg (1024×819).jpg

Occasionally, products can even broadcast information to public space.

For example, RFID reader displays in retail stores are now able to identify products that have been selected and dynamically display information about them.

Or for another well known example, Mini used RFID to power this dynamic outdoor display.

First-ever Talking Billboards Revealed to Mini Motorists | Design News.jpg


Connected products can also be responsive to the world, updating themselves based on content generated by people or by real world events.

The form of players in EA’s FIFA 10 Live Season videogame change dynamically based on the actions of those same players in the real world. If Cesc Fabregas is having a blinding season for Arsenal, he’ll be that much stronger in the game as well.

FIFA10_X360_Ligue1LiveSeason_006_619x346.jpg (619×346).jpg

Or showing how products could update based on content generated externally, the collar on the dress worn by Imogen Heap at the Grammy awards displayed a real-time feed of tweets addressed to her.

Grammys_ Imogen Heap Accepts Award Wearing _Twitter Dress_.jpg


I haven’t seen many examples of this, but it’s a natural next step. As products begin to capture location and activity data, gathering data on how they are used and who you are as the user, as well as the context and environment they are being used in, they can begin to personalize themselves to you, automatically adapting and optimizing themselves.

For example, Intel Labs is developing a new smart TV remote. It aims to recognize who’s holding the remote based on idiosyncracies of their hand motion (yes, seriously) and then once identified, automatically serves up personalized content and menus.

Google Chrome.jpg


If your product deals in data, it’s possible to expose that data to the world, allowing other people to build things on top of it, creating additional value for your business and your customers on your behalf.

For example, Ford SYNC AppLink is connecting the car’s in-dash system with 3rd party application platforms, including Google’s Android. This means Android developers will be able to develop apps that run inside the car. It’s not a stretch to assume those Android apps built specifically for AppLink could hook into a Ford SYNC Applink API, drawing data directly from the car in real-time, including driving behaviour and geo-location. The car is built as a platform, not just a product.

Other brilliant examples come from the iPhone and Nintendo DS.

iStetho uses a special adapter for your iPhone plus an iTunes app to turn stethoscope input into visualizations that could be viewed, stored and analyzed.

Video_ iStetho Turns your iPhone into a Stethoscope-1.jpg

Bayer Didget is a blood glucose reader designed for diabetic children instead of their parents. It works as a fully functioning reader device on its own, but it also plugs directly into the Nintendo DS, converting test results into reward points that allow kids to unlock items, levels and mini-games within a DS adventure game called Knock ‘Em Down.

Bayer Drops in with Didget Blood Glucose Monitoring System for Nintendo DS | Game Guru.jpg

Yes, the DS and iPhone are by definition platforms. But I think there’s something in the idea that any physical product that takes in or creates digital input can be built with platform principles in mind, creating many future extension opportunities that the original designers may never have envisioned.


So, the six opportunity spaces for connected products I’ve spotted so far include:

  • BUNDLED - Unlocking exclusive digital experiences.
  • SENSITIVE - Collecting and interpreting data.
  • TALKATIVE - Sharing and broadcasting.
  • RESPONSIVE - Responsive to the world.
  • UNIQUE - Personalized to you, and evolves over time based on customer interaction with product.
  • PLATFORMS - Platforms not products.

Have you seen other connected products that include these features?
Do you have suggestions for other additions to the list, or a different
way of grouping them?
What areas of connected products do you think will be most prolific over the coming years, and where will the most impactful innovations come from?

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