An Evening With Dr. David Parisi – Virtual Hands & Digital Brands

Packaging Meets Touch Technologies

A Cog’s-eye-view of Dr. Parisi’s talk:

  • Online products can’t offer the packaging decoration that enhances a brand’s shelf presence.

  • Touch strengthens the consumer’s bond with brands and products.

  • Including haptics in packaging design should be part of a holistic approach, which includes structure, graphics, tactile effects, and augmented reality to produce a best-in-class effect.

Dr. David Parisi is Professor of Emerging Media at The College of Charleston.  He’s very much a man of the “now,” but with his long, red-gold hair and arcane mustache, he could easily have been a figure from “The Lord of the Rings,” perhaps on Elrond’s Council offering peeks into the future to mortals. We Cogs saw him speak at BXP Live!  last year and knew immediately others should hear what he had to say.

We invited Dr. Parisi to address a gathering at the Cincinnati Club on April 11—and what do you know, the digital touch guru turned out to be an altogether pleasant, normal, fully-corporeal being. Nearly one hundred attended his presentation, “Virtual Hands and Digital Brands,” its content tailored especially for players in the consumer packaging design-to-print supply chain.

Dr. Parisi’s specialty is haptics, a study like optics or acoustics, only it regards the sense of touch. In his book “The Archaeologies of Touch,” he contends that, more than the other four senses, touching is truth, at an irreducible and instinctual level. Consider marketing and the vital part touch plays in the First Moment of Truth, a customer’s initial encounter with a brand. That’s the moment every consumer packaging person wants to hear the customer say, “It just feels good.” When the product looks appealing and feels good, the customer feels good, and the bottom line looks good. Take away that sense of touch, say by shifting an increasing percentage of sales to the digital shelf, and a brand risks losing literal touch with its customer. It becomes more abstract, less real.

Cue the ominous music and fog machine. Physically bound books have become a rarity. CDs and DVDs will soon be only memories. As malls close and supermarket home-delivery becomes widespread, away goes the sampling of fabric, the testing of fruit, and for those who remember Mr. Whipple, the “squeezing of Charmin.”

1. Take a Shock and Feel Pleasant. Dr. Parisi began his talk about the future with a discussion of the past. Forward-thinkers from yesteryear tried all kinds of crazy touch-related things, like the exploration of  “medical electricity.” They noted non-lethal amounts of current running through a person produced such a profound feeling, it was sure to have benefits. Maybe it could cure vision problems, restore hair, remove wrinkles or cure tonsillitis. Thinking like this gave rise to such products as “The New Style Electric Rectal Probe,” and a sinister reputation to medical electricity. It all ended up complete quackery, but still, such attempts underscored the importance of touch. 

2. The Power of Touch.Parisi points to the smart phone as an example. Users experience the product physically, its contours, textures, and weight develop a relationship between hand and brand. Paradoxically, while average users tap their devices 2,200 times a day, they can’t touch what they are viewing. The opening of a package to reveal the hitherto unseen product has a quasi-magical aura about it. YouTube tries to recreate the sensation when it “unboxes” a video, often with commentaries on the quality of the packaging materials and the emotional experience the haptic act of removing the object creates. It wasn’t until fifteen years ago that the role of touch to consumers received the academic attention it deserved when Sensory Marketing became a field of study.

3. The Age of Dematerialization. With so many physical products being replaced with digital alternatives, our culture is experiencing an absence of touch. As a specialist in emerging media, Dr. Parisi notes the loss of tangible media, such as discs, and the rise of music, books, games, videos, art, and other things that live in the digisphere without a physical presence in the lives of users. The CD and DVD libraries, bookcases of literature, and shelves of games that once took up real space and proclaimed, “I am real,” are dwindling. Many now praise the infinite potential of digital ware but mourn the loss of their tangible possessions. Where’s the balance?

4. The age of re-materialization: making bits feel like atoms. New forms of haptics technology could, if supported by the marketplace, re-materialize things eluding our touch. It seems people want that. Even though Best Buy is no longer selling CDs, the sales of vinyl records were the highest they’ve been since 1989. Even the misbegotten cassette is enjoying resurgence. Ironically, the technology that removed us from touch is the same to bring it back. Vibrations from smartphones, game controllers and motion trackers are already supplying tactile feedback from the screens we watch. Not long ago, Robyn Schwartz, a retail industry expert at IBM, proposed that advances in haptic tech will allow us to feel textures by sliding a finger across the flat glass of oursmartphones. Micro-scale actuators within the glass will stimulate the network of receptors in ourfingertips with such precision as to fool our minds into believing we’ve touched leather, hard or soft plastic, steel or even human flesh (uh oh, scandal’s a-brewin’!)

5. The Recent Past: Rediscovering Touch. Here Parisi presents examples of how marketing campaigns for digital tech are focusing on tactile materiality. Aided by a slide show, he first discussed Nintendo’s 2005 “Touching is Good” campaign, ads showcasing thetouchscreen of their new game console. More than touch, they were selling the interaction with and manipulation of virtual worlds. In 2007, Apple’s “Touching is Believing” campaign presented their first-generation iPhone that dared to eschew keys for a glass touch screen. HP followed with “Love at First Touch,” a promise that users would swoon at the first swipe of their new tablets. Funny how, just a few years later, these heresies have become doctrine.

6. Touched by the Machine.  Also in 2007, the Adult Entertainment Broadcast Network (AEBN), basically what the online porn industry looks like in the light of day, seized on touch as a way to fight piracy. Both giggle-worthy and creepy was the technology developed by an ex-NASA guy to provide tactile sensations along with the videos. That was added value criminal enterprises couldn’t offer. AEBN CEO Scott Coffman explained, “you can pirate the movie but you can’t pirate the experience.” The RealTouch feature provided users sensations of pressure, temperature and lubrication. Ewww!

7. Dad’s Pregnant Too. Ogilvy and Mather Argentina came out with this eyebrow-raiser for Huggies: a way fathers could experience some of what their wives felt while pregnant. By wearing a touch-feedback-enabled belt, men could feel the joy of baby bumping about without the swollen ankles and morning sickness. While not exactly authentic, Huggies’ return-on-investment was a bundle of joy from their customers.

8. The Face of Gillette: Gilad Katt (P&G Israel) with TanvasTouch. An award-winning project from MediaCom Israel employed haptic tech to win customer approval without all the from-the-ground-up costs Huggies incurred developing their preggers belt. Elegantly simple, their campaign for Gillette allowed new fathers to experience, via a high-fidelity haptic touchscreen, the feel of facial skin before and after a shave as their newborn would. While the sensation could hardly replicate the nuances of beard or skin textures, it positioned Gillette as a brand in touch with the lives of its customers.

9. Harnessing the Power of Touch. Parisi then referred to a present-day example from the Immersion Corporation. Their touch-feedback tech is licensed for use in products byApple, Sony, Samsung, Microsoft, Google, HTC, and even BMW.These are the folks who let gamers feel the bumps on the road through the controller of a video driving game. Their most recent innovation is “Touch Sense: Ads You Can Feel.” Parisi invited any in the audience with Android phones to watch and feel along with him as he presented a video from Arby’s “We have the meats” campaign. While over 1,100 participants from a study by Immersion thought the haptic feedback enhanced their experience, Parisi found the sensations were not as fun as they were off-putting.

10.Into the Future. He went on to cite three examples of tech that, in his words, “hold the potential to obliterate the distinction between the virtual and the real, by providing detailed simulations of material interactions with virtual objects.” The most exciting of these is the HaptX glove, which recently made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival. The glove uses a principle known as microfluidics to simulate the textures of objects on the screen. This is the kind of tech that is promising the return of touching during the buying process. See the fabric. Feel how deliciously satiny it is. Then there’s the Teslasuit, a full-body virtual reality suit that would allow a customer to physically inhabit the space in which a product lives—wind-in-the-hair on a Harley, maybe? The third is less virtual reality and more augmented reality and called, ironically, Ultrahaptics, as it gives the impression of physical weight to an image without the sensation of touch.

He wound up his peek into the future with a technology, already in the works, that could make all this happen. If you’ve heard of 5G internet, you know the exponentially greater bandwidth needed to conduct the massive amounts of digital information haptic technologies will require is on the horizon. Parisi made a point of not over-promising. The development of touch technology has burned its fingertips more than a few times in the past forty years without reaching its goals. Still…still…partnerships between tech developers and brands are actually happening. If there’s money to be made from virtual touch, someone’s going to get their hands on it sooner rather than later.