In the sphere of physical/digital interaction, the bulk of the attention is going to “outbound” communication from objects. For example, Nike+, EcoDrive, and BakerTweet. This is all about objects generating data and communicating it back with their owners or other interested parties.
The other area to explore is “inbound” communication to objects, controlling them and changing their behaviour via digital channels.
The most celebrated example of this is Nike’s LIVESTRONG Chalkbot. Chalkbot took tweets as input, and used those to write chalk messages of support in the path of Tour de France riders, allowing fans to remotely participate in this inspiring tradition.
Livestrong is a great example of a brand supporting their marketing efforts by allowing people to remotely control and input into physical devices. Here’s a collection of other examples of this idea in action:
Halo “Remember Reach”
For the launch of the latest instalment of the lauded gaming franchise Halo, Microsoft and its partners constructed a “54,000 points of light” tribute to the fallen heroes of the Halo Reach battle. Fans can use a pick a point of light on the matrix, and then watch as a giant robotic arm plots that point onto the light sculpture, helping reveal the final form.
Heinz “Talk to the Plant”
Described as an “Interactive Ketchup Growing Experiment”, Heinz’s Talk to the Plant campaign took the slightly-dubious insight that 75% of people talk to their plants, and decided to see whether they could prove that a little vocal encouragement goes a long way for our green friends.
Plant lovers could peck out a message on the Heinz microsite, selected a voice to use, and then listen as it was played for the lucky plant. A control plant received no such support, and in the end of the six week experiment it was 7% shorter, proving the campaign proposition that Heinz can grow tomatoes like no other.
Absolut Machines: Absolut Choir
Part of Absolut’s brilliant 2008 Absolut Machines exploration of the intersection of technology and creativity in art and music, Absolut Choir is a “multi-channel robotic choir” created by Swedish studio Teenage Engineering.
The installation consisted of 10 wooden characters ranging in size from four inches to nearly eight feet tall, each with a unique synthetically produced voice ranging from tenor to soprano. The characters also contained an embedded Linux device allowing them to be controlled and fed sound instructions by a master server character.
The master character was then connected with the world via www.absolut.com/absolutmachines. Online users from around the world were able to input words to the machine, which the choir would automatically absorb into the composition, generating new melodies, tempos and lyrics, taking on a “mood” from the tone and content of the user’s input.
Named as the 2010 Webby’s People’s Voice Award for best NetArt, BBC’s Blast Studio
interactive art installation put the tools of creativity into thousands of young people’s hands, allowing them to create a collaborative piece of art over the internet in a brilliantly simple and fun way.
From controlling a robot to blast paint against a wall, triggering AV sequences using hanging strip lights, and inputting into automatic typewriters, visitors to the Blast Studio microsite had a chance to contribute and explore their creativity in real-time, directly evolving the installation in London’s Southbank Centre.
Sony Hopper Invasion: #Pumpt
For their Spark Something campaign in the UK, Sony experimented with the idea of an event combined with real-time visualization. Using a combination of Twitter and Arduino, for every #Pumpt tweet that was received one of 49 Space Hopper balloons would automatically inflate for 10 seconds.
EA Battlefield Bad Company 2
To promote the launch of Battlefield Bad Company 2, EA went as far as to create an actual battlefield. Built at 1/10th scale and residing at a local cinemaplex, users could use a Flash interface to remotely roam the terrain with one of four webcam-enabled tanks, and blast the enemy tanks controlled by other virtual opponents using a laser LED cannon.
The virtual generals who scored the most points climbed a leaderboard and ultimately took home the spoils of victory, including free copies of the game.
Foster’s Scuba is a product innovation that helps control the size of bubbles in the beer, leading to a smoother drinking experience.
To create some buzz around the in-can widget, Foster’s created Ride the Scuba, a competition to seek and destroy bubbles in a 100,000 litre tank of amber coloured nectar. Using a scuba robot remote controlled via the internet, competitors had two minutes to blast away bubbles in the tank, broadcast live from the National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth, UK.
Playground Stores / Sleepless
Playground Stores in Sweden wanted to sell more of its hiking and outdoor lifestyle products. Drawing from the insight that hiking makes people healthier and more alert, their agency Akestam Holst came up with the idea to have a competition for four hiking enthusiasts to stay awake the longest, and sell products while doing so. To raise the stakes, customers who bought products from the winning competitor would be fully refunded their money to making a successful bet.
Sleepless was a great example of outbound physical/digital integration. Not only was the event live-streamed, competitors had heart rate monitors and pedometers which broadcast their real-time activity back to the web.
There was also a really smart bit of inbound connection as well. where when users saw their chosen competitor starting to nod off, they could prod them back to life or send a message of support via a Tweet or SMS. Pretty low-fi compared to the other examples, but very nicely integrated into the overall concept and experience.
Imogen Heap TwitDress
Singer/songwriter Imogen Heap has long been a pioneer in the online space, using social tools such as Twitter to involve her fans in every aspect of her creative process and create a uniquely close relationship with them.
So when it came time for her to accept an award at the 52nd Annual Grammy Awards, she invented a way for her fans to accompany her on stage. Creating a piece of fashion called the TwitDress, Imogen’s dress collar featured a set of LED’s that were able to display TwitPics featuring hashtag #twitdress in real-time.
Skoda Octavia Remote Control
In an idea that amazingly got past the legal department, Skoda in Amsterdam gave people remote-control of a real car via the internet. Presumably in a pedestrian and vehicle free environment, people could choose to watch the live stream, or get involved and take it for a drive themselves.
The trend of brands experimenting with inbound physical/digital and connecting internet users directly with physical objects kicked off in earnest back in 2008 with the Cannes silver lion winning Heinz “Talk to the Plant”, the Absolut Choir, and Foster’s Ride the Scuba. Since then we’ve seen a wave of further innovations, notably the use of tools such as Twitter to make the input process even more seamless and social.
The best examples to date tick both the boxes of “PR stunt” and “audience engagement”, and the success metrics on quoted on both counts are impressive.
As more and more brands look for innovative and effective ways of engaging and activating their audiences, the idea of allowing those users to interact and collaborate in a shared physical space from the comfort and convenience of their own homes is ripe for further exploration and invention.
If you have any other great examples of inbound physical/digital connections in action, or thought on the future of the space, I’d love to hear them in the comments.