Two things became apparent at CES last week:
1) Take any item, add 'Smart' in front of it, and you've got yourself a business plan
2) The future is all about feeling, in every sense of the word
From how we search the Internet to how we shake hands, in 2017 one thing is for sure: the way we feel things is about to get intense.
It's January and many people are working hard to keep their New Year's resolutions to get fit and be healthy, and there's an extensive number of companies out there who want to help you do this. In 2016 approximately 60% of mobile phone users downloaded health-related apps, and fitness-tracking wearables are projected to exceed $14bn by 2021.
But in 2017 expect to see the rise of 'Feelables', wearables and apps that measure and track the health and wellbeing of your mind. Simply called 'Feel', Sentio Solutions' smart bracelet recognises and tracks your emotions throughout the day and provides personalised coaching to improve your wellbeing. Or if you haven't been feeling very 'New year, new me', maybe it's because you're spending too much time scrolling, trolling, liking and linking on the internet. UK start-up Watermelon Sugar has made an extension for your browser that visualises your mind as a live, morphing, digital creature, reflecting the impact of your browser history on the brain. The amoebic visualisation of your data gets hairy, bloated and spotty when you've been poisoning your psyche with too much 'fake news', politics, gossip or social media, reminding you to find balance in your screen time to maintain your mental health.
In fashion, designers are aspiring to clothes that not only make you look great, but make you feel great too. At the heart of this is the IoT, or as it's called in fashion, 'IoME'. Transparent computing was declared the next major phase of computing during a panel on Smart Fabrics at CES, meaning that everything around us will be 'smart' and have the ability to respond to our needs without us even being conscious of it. Panellist, Jesse Jur of NC State College of Textiles thinks that RFID will be the first technology to be embedded into every piece of clothing, potentially linking what we choose to wear each day with our personal data, preferences, and payments.
Imagine that instead of buying a shirt, you buy a subscription to a brand for twelve months, during which time they become your personal stylist and know what you need before you do. Smart clothes will send a message to the brand that you've washed your shirt twenty times and that it's time to send you a new one, or that you've lost those holiday pounds and need to be sent a pair of your favourite jeans in the next size smaller. These insights and disruptive retail model could be the start of a much more personalised service, one that makes you feel like your preferred brand is really taking care of you.
"It becomes fashion when you're giving the customer what they want," said leading fashion-tech designer Sylvia Heisel. One common complaint people have are phones running out of charge, but this could soon be history as clothing that harvests and stores energy from your own body is coming. Thermal harvesting uses pulse points where blood vessels are near the surface of the skin to collect energy.
"At some point, we'll be creating too much power and you'll be able to power a lamp just by touching it," said Jur.
Another one of the biggest tech trends of 2017 also explores feeling, except this time, the things you feel don't really exist. Haptic technology is finally getting the attention it deserves, as many virtual and mixed reality content providers see the integration of touch as the next phase of evolution for virtual experiences.
Have you ever gotten so wrapped up in an immersive virtual experience that you reach out to touch something, and when you can't this realisation immediately kills the illusion and takes you away from enjoying the experience? Tactai Touch offers a solution. With a small wearable attached to my finger, I could feel a soft teddy bear, the different textures of fabrics, hold a small statue in my hands, and use a virtual remote control that replicates the feeling of pressing the buttons.
Virtual reality content provider, Fundamental VR, uses a haptics pen as a needle to help nurses and medical students learn how to give injections, which I imagine is much less painful than practicing on a real person - for both student and patient. Visualise, another UK based VR company, have integrated motion chairs into virtual driving experiences to give users a more realistic sense of being in the driver's seat.
Tanvas debuted their 'feel screen' technology turning touch screens into tactile experiences that mimic sensations, making objects on the screen feel heavy or light, stretchy or stiff, sticky or slick. Then there is Ultrahaptics, a Bristol-based company that allows you to touch virtual objects in mid-air by using ultrasound technology to project sensations onto a hand. They showcased an ATM machine that doesn't require a single touch, offering a big innovation for public health and the prevention of spreadable viruses and diseases. Meanwhile, London design studio, The F-T-R, have created Skinterface, a skinsuit which allows your whole body to feel the transition from the physical world into a virtual one. In addition to the second skin, they also have an interface for remote touch, allowing you to shake someone's hand on the other side of the world.
Whether it's changing the way we interact with our minds and bodies, or giving us new ways to explore virtual worlds, these emerging technologies will change the way we feel on a mass scale.
From stores and workplaces, to homes and cars, companies and brands must understand that success comes when you put people at the heart of every experience and give them the chance to feel something that they've never experienced before. These new technologies and innovators are opening doors to a future where we can make the impossible a reality, inspiring us to explore, dream and discover, and feel our way through this crazy world.