The mobile (r)evolution: infusing life beyond pixels

We've come a long way since 2010, when the American Dialect Society named "app" the word of the year. Even today, mobile devices and their ecosystems show no signs of slowing down. Quite the contrary, in fact: in 2020, the App Store ecosystem alone facilitated $643 billion in billings and sales, up 24 percent from 2019. Impressive, right? And while we have reached a massive scale of adoption and an interesting level of polish, it seems that a wave of creativity has yet to sweep our mobile devices into a new era.

Coping with touch starvation

Last year, during the first lockdown, I was struck by a report from Apptopia, a company providing competitive intelligence on the mobile app ecosystem, which highlighted several pandemic uses. Indeed, according to the firm, the top ten vibrator apps (yes, you read that right) recorded an average of 1.1 million new monthly downloads between March and June 2020 worldwide on iOS and Android. July alone accounted for 1.6 million downloads. That's an increase of 171 percent over five months, compared to the previous five months. I know the question you’re all asking is… seriously, what happened there?

While it may seem that some people downloaded these apps to soothe muscle tension or to enhance a meditation session — yeah, sure — others showed, shall we say, more imagination. I won't spell it out for you, but it seems that mobile devices — and their vibratory capacity — have become a close, very close companion, for some lonely souls. What do you think? Weird, right?

The reason I am bringing up this example is that, beyond the fact that it is as far-fetched and unusual as it may seem, it is also particularly evocative of how the lack of physical contact affects our lives. As psychotherapist Bruno Vibert explains in an interview for Slate, "Touching and being touched is necessary for our balance. It is more than a biological need. It is a sense that allows us to perceive emotions in others. It validates the affection of loved ones and keeps fears away." However, with a health crisis that is not quite over, it is important to redefine this need for touch in a multisensory context, which can open the way to more digital creativity.

Bringing mobile experiences to the next level

Of course, there are already some interesting technological innovations - notably AR - that bring a more phygital and immersive dimension to the mobile experience. However, I think we are still very far from having exploited the mobile’s full potential. A few recent examples testify to these upcoming opportunities:

  • Aglet is Pokemon Go for sneakers: users walk around in the real world, collecting virtual currency — the Aglet —to buy pairs of virtual sneakers. Now, where the model becomes particularly interesting is regarding its phygitalization. The brand recently launched an in-game integration tied to the weather in the real world. As one of its co-founders, Ryan David Mullins, explained to me, "We're using OpenWeather to display the weather in real time at the player's location and have introduced new attributes/variables to each virtual sneaker in the game. We're trying *really* hard to bring utility to digital assets. This means that players must be strategic about which sneakers they wear in the game to maximize the number of Aglets they earn. Additionally, when we introduce avatars later in the year, the entire outfit will need to be optimized for the weather in order to maximize the number of Aglets they can earn." For Mullins, we no longer live "online" or "offline" but rather "onlife."

  • Poparazzi is a social app that has been creating buzz since its launch in late May of 2021. The principle is simple: unlike Instagram, it is impossible to post photos of yourself. The goal is to highlight your friends by becoming somewhat the paparazzi of your team. You take pictures of them on the fly, once, or in continuous mode like a photographer who surprises celebrities. A striking feature of the app? The haptic onboarding when you download the app. The phone vibrates as you watch the introductory video, mimicking the haptic feedback you get when you take a picture with a traditional camera. And the intensity increases to highlight the continuous shooting mode.

Rethinking mobile experiences is definitely a subject on many people's mind. Last Sunday, while recording a podcast with Yehoshua Zlotogorski, founder of the audio learning app Alpe, we talked a lot about… learning, obviously. Yehoshua told me that he is interested in the capabilities of mobile devices as a learning platform in a way that has not yet been used. According to him, if we use mobile devices to listen or watch courses, we do not exploit enough of the learning capacity based on the fact that our smartphone allows us to be mobile in the world around us. To illustrate his point, he presented me with several examples: why not use geolocation in mobile learning? The Memory Palace is a common memory enhancement technique. It is based on the memory of places that are already well known that we associate with new elements that we want to memorize. Why not do that in the real world? We know that associations such as location, sound and sight help to anchor memories in our brain longer, this could be a very powerful avenue to explore. Another example he gave me could be matching learners based on their activity or location (learners in the same neighborhood or going to work at the same time). Exercise is another aspect — our brains are very good at thinking in a certain way at certain heart rates,some forms of learning could be built around that. In short: sky is the limit. 

An article in The Financial recently reported that researchers have received £8 million from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) to develop a new technology that will allow children to experience nature through their smartphones by "feeling" textures such as feathers, fur and tree bark with a haptic kit that will be adapted to existing smartphones and tablets. This is just one of many examples emerging in the fertile grounds of technological innovation. At the crossroads of augmented mobile devices and wearables that have been booming recently, we can also see the post-mobile world on the horizon, which will, for sure, enlighten all our senses.

Marie

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