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Missing Links


Products that connect the physical with the social on the web, create innovative opportunities for retail.A new type of product has emerged in recent years, starting with the introduction of Nike+ together with Apple iPods in 2006. These devices link to the accumulated statistics of an activity over time and share these with an online community.

You may call them mash-up devices, taking a range of sensors, attaching meaning to the extracted data and linking these to other information and more importantly to various social networks based around shared interests. Some call them social objects.

Interestingly these physical linked devices are initiators for commercial transactions, partly based on social pressure, recommending products and services based on the patterns gained from the user’s activities.

Here are some examples:

 Nike+ and iPod


I recently had the pleasure of meeting Ray Riley, one of the driving forces behind the project. What Nike Plus did is to combine insights from early adopters who used for example GPS technology and heart rate monitor, to create their own tracking tools to log distances and speed during excercise. Nike used these insights to develop a low cost accelerometer and paired these with an established and ubiquitous device, the iPod, already used by many athletes, to facilitate data exchange with computers and an online service. It allows users to visualize their progress and set new targets. On the back of it, this application establishes a continuous relationship with the Nike brand. It offers regular updates on products for runners including sports gear and nutritional additives like vitamins depending on your workout requirements. In a few years they established a huge community of runners, encouraging each other and competing in virtual sports events around the globe. 



So around comes a company that uses a similar accelerometer, attaches it to a dog’s collar and then adds, in their words a low powered active RFIDs with a proprietary radio protocol, to communicate with other Tags. When two dogs wearing SNIF Tags are within close range of one another, the tags automatically swap unique identifying codes, recording the encounter and relaying it to a server when the dogs return to a connected SNIF Base Station.

The company has a great strap line “Tails told, Friends Made” ; “Monitor your dog’s activity while you’re away. Keep in touch with his friends and yours. Share helpful information and pet tips online. And get connected to your community. It’s hi-tech, it’s hi-style, easy to use, and completely customizable.”

You can guess where this is going. Combining the activity level with the pedigree of your do, recommendations will be offered about how much and what to feed your dog. The dog colar becomes a innovative shopping basket in disguise 

This is more sophisticated than the way we currently exchange business cards in the corporate world. Where is the version that clips on to a tie or cufflink or goes well with a ladies handbag?

Actually this has already been applied on a mass scale  …

Clickables: Walt Disney Pixie Hollow, Fairies friendship charms 

disney_clickables_580  Clickables™ technology

Roll over princesses and princes, if you have not noticed it hase been all things fairies for the past few years in the world of Disney. With this new direction came a whole set of technologies linking the virtual and the real together in a continuous social network. Disney extended play in the virtual world of Pixie Hollow.

Connecting Pixie Hollow to the real world are Clickables. Pixie Dust eJewelry Collection includes a magical jewelry box, a charm bracelet and exclusive Disney Fairies charms powered by Clickables™ RFID technology. When a girl touches a charm to the center of her jewelry box, which is connected via a pc to the internet, Pixie Dust sparkles and music plays as the jewelry box comes alive. Each charm unlocks a unique fairy gift at, including exclusive clothing, and décor for their online avatar. The friendship eCharm bracelet is connected to an online avatar that lives in Pixie Hollow land. A profile of the avatar, messages and gifts can be stored offline on the bracelet and can be shared with others just by touching the bracelets together. They glow, and the transaction is complete. Very magical indeed. 

All this includes a virtual currency, virtual gifts and real jewellery and other merchandise. It comes with a handheld electronic game. Points earned in the offline game can be turned to Tink Points for buying virtual goods or completing quests. It all sumes up to an integrated retail strategy, created by a team selected from marketing, technology, design, even finance and lawyers, coming together to form a holistic vision and unified implementation.

You can expect this technology to roll out across different themes and Disney brands in the near future.


A lower tech predecesor is the popular Webkinz. Using cuddly soft animal toys to represent a link to a virtual world.  Each toy comes with an unique 8 character ID allowing users to access the virtual alter ego of their stuffed pet and start playing in an online world.

A summary from wikipedia : Each Webkinz stuffed animal and Webkinz accessory comes with an 8-character code. By registering this secret code on the Webkinz website, the customer “adopts” his pet in the virtual Webkinz World. The Webkinz World is an online play area with its own economy. The user receives money, called KinzCash, by adopting new pets, playing online games, answering general knowledge questions, and through daily activities. With each Webkinz toy purchased, more money, rooms, and items are added to the user’s account. Accounts expire within one year, unless another Webkinz animal is purchased.

Users can spend their KinzCash at what is called the W Shop, where they can purchase food and clothing for their pet, items for their pet’s room or to build additional rooms onto their house, or outdoors areas etc. Users can decorate a room for their pet with pre-made themes, or mix and match their own furniture.

The online world also contains many rare or exclusive items. Some of these items are obtained by registering other Webkinz accessories purchased in the real world. Each type of pet gets a special food available exclusively for them. Also, a Pet of the Month is announced at the beginning of each month. If a person registers the announced pet in that month, they will receive other exclusive items. 

This fascinating approach is the basis for many similar formulas, creating a continuous set of incentives to engage in a virtual economy and linking it back into real world transactions.

Barcode Battlers 


Barcode Battlers wikipedia

It all reminds me vaguely of the pioneers of it all; Barcode Battlers. A Tamagochi type game launched in Japan in the early nineties and was based on in-game strength or energy for each of the battling characters derived from scanning barcodes found on real consumer goods. In fact you battled one barcode against another. The game was so popular that when some barcodes of obscure products were found to be very powerful these products instantly sold out in the supermarkets. Thinking of it,  it makes for an interesting retail strategy ;-)

eco:Drive Fiat 

Using sensors to measure your impact on the environment and helping you to adapt your behaviour according to insights into your usage patterns is another big area for innovation.


eco:Drive works using Fiat’s Blue&Me entertainment and communications system. Plugging any USB key into the Blue&Me port allows eco:Drive to record detailed information about the vehicle’s efficiency and your driving style during a journey. The information is tranfered by plugging the USB key into your computer when you’ve finished driving.

Users can analyse fuel consumption and emissions for each journey made, and receive advice on how to drive more efficiently, reducing their impact on the environment. eco:Drive will give you a score out of 100 – your eco:Index – to show how efficiently you have driven, based on your acceleration, deceleration, gear changes and speed.  A series of tutorials will help you to improve your score, showing you how to perfect your driving using detailed information from your own journeys.

Drivers who start eco:Driving can expect to improve their driving efficiency by up to 15 per cent. That means a 15 per cent reduction in CO2 emissions and in fuel costs. Fiat has also created ecoVille, a unique online community populated by all eco:Drivers from around the world. Users will be able to share tips, watch the community grow, and see just how much CO2 they are all saving together.

ecoDrive is an evolution of the Blue&Me platform, developed by Fiat Group Automobiles in conjunction with Microsoft and first installed in the Fiat 500 and Grande Punto. The system is open for feedback from users for future improvements. Most importantly it creates a really useful, continuous relationship between the customer and the Fiat brand. More sincere than any customer relationship message received as regular email newsletter ever can do.

Wattson by DIY Kyoto

This same principle can be applied to your home. The Wattson launched by DIY Kyoto in 2006, helps you to investigate your electricity usage in your home down to cost of operating individual appliances.

diy kyoto wattson_holmes

DIY Kyoto’s aim was to develop a product that although it fulfills a very technical function, looks and behaves like a stylish interactive piece of furniture that lives well in the surroundings of your domestic environment; very different from the engineered electric meter you would expect. As such it has become one of the first high tech products that is being sold in interior and design shops. It tells a story about being actively engaged with managing your carbon footprint.

When we first showed one of the initial production models of the Wattson as part of the dwb showroom collections, we realized that it not only works to convince people to save energy, but in fact that it could very well serve eco-aware home owners, who already would be applying energy saving strategies, to show-off  their eco-credentials by demonstrating the efficiency of the appliances, solar collectors, double glazing etc they had invested in.


Put together a temperature, light and humidity sensor, combine it with a data analyzing algorithm first used on a Mars mission, package it in the suggestive form of a flower and you get easyBloom. Place the device for a few days in the soil in your garden, in a location where you would like to grow some plants, and once connected back to the internet with its integrated usb plug, it will inform you about the type of plants recommended for the conditions found at that spot. 


This is seriously clever design. Not only does this little appliance help you to remove anxiety about what plants to choose, but it actually links you directly to websites of garden centres and at a later stage even supplies you with information about fertilizers and where to order them. Now this is what we mean with innovative retail solutions; it’s a contemporary update to the Gillette model: give away the handle almost for free and people will come back to purchase the razor blades. It is a high tech product that lives easily in the surroundings of a garden center or a flower shop. It’s design makes a perfect lifestyle gift. 

There are many more examples appearing each week. For me these type of products represent real opportunities for design and will lead to new design languages.

So where is this leading in the future, it’s easy to start brainstorming:

… Musical instruments that sense skill and style and link you to similarly skilled musicians within your locality and offer music lessons or instrument upgrades.

… Houses that compete on their eco-credentials with others within the community, based on a  handicap level, similar to a handicap levels applied to sports like  Golf or Sailing. The handicap could be calculated on the type of building, the amount of rooms, the volume, type and amount or surface area of windows, type of heating etc.

… Mobile devices that sense your location and activity and link you to … (there are many of these)

… Soon we are likely to see all kind of iPhone accessoires emerge, similar to the current iPhone App for Nike+. This will be sensors and devices that send all kinds of messages to be displayed in a lifestyle management type dashboard app on your iPhone.

So why not try something yourself. Some tools to get you started are available at …


 Usman Haque   started an online project that encourages people to make their data from all kinds of sensors, spread around the world, publicly available and stimulate all kinds of mesh-ups and he hopes will lead to new applications and services.


Pachube is a service that enables you to connect, tag and share real time sensor data from objects, devices, buildings and environments around the world. The key aim is to facilitate interaction between remote environments, both physical and virtual.

Both landline and mobile networks have already been carrying for the past decennia, invisible to the public eye, an enormous amount of data from commercial sensors and controllers like security and farming applications. Only now they become affordable and accessible and we start experiencing these on a personal and consumer level. These are exciting times and I am looking forward to be surprised by new types of products and services to emerge.

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