Phygital Reality: The next tech battleground

You are incredibly spoiled today. There, I said it.

You live in a world where the only thing that excites you anymore is a revolution. And by “excites,” I mean you are willing to give about 10 seconds of your attention to it. Just a few months into a new year, and you’re wondering what the next frontier in consumer technology will bring because you’re already bored with the mind-blowing tech introduced at CES only a few months ago. That’s sooo January…

While so much of the tech industry is focused on the appeal and applications for virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), the speed and focus of technology development that supports these platforms is vastly outpacing our ability to digitize the physical side of the reality equation, leaving a significant and difficult gap to fill.

Regardless of what you think about Apple’s products (are they innovating anymore? etc.), there is evidence that shows they are making advancements that point to a coming revolution in “phygital reality” (PR).

But haptic actuators are only the beginning; these will be refined, further miniaturized, and more deeply integrated into devices in ways that simulate the tactility of the physical world around us. And, like their visual display counterparts, they will only increase in perceivable resolution and will deliver physical responses far beyond the Morse code tap patterns of today’s tech.

High-definition tactile response will one day enable us to perceive texture, temperature, humidity, olfactory sensation (smell), and other key variables that make up our physical reality. Materials with embedded electrodes will transmit electrical signals that sync with the nerve endings in our skin like a modem, essentially hacking into our nerve endings, sending signals that synthesize the feel of an environment of our choosing.

Sound impossible?

In 2015, engineering students at Rice University, in association with Virtuix, started a program called Hands Omni, which is pioneering advanced haptic response gear for VR applications. Using a series of pneumatic and hydraulic actuators, they created a drive system and glove prototype that syncs with a virtual environment and allows users to reach out and perceive the feel of physical objects in a virtual environment. Virtuix also launched a virtual reality treadmill called the Omni treadmill, on which a VR user can strap in and phygitally walk around safely in a stationary position to interact with a virtual game environment.

Netflix’s pilot episode of White Rabbit Project: Super Power Tech showcases actual live nerve hacking, whereby a subject can train a computer to recognize, record, and replicate brain signals that tell your body to move—using someone else’s brain! It’s called electrophysiology and it’s something you have to see to believe.

But while those technologies are being perfected, we will witness a sea change in technologies like haptic actuators and microelectrodes into a wide variety of Internet of Things (IoT) applications. It’s plausible that the keyboards, buttons, and switches of tomorrow will be devoid of moving parts altogether. Car doors, light switches, keyfobs—all will become virtual experiences facilitated by micro actuators or embedded microelectrodes that are tunable with software and, more importantly, connected appliances that generate data.

While VR and AR may be en vogue now, the real revolution you crave will take place when phygital reality finally becomes, well… a reality. But that won’t be the only revolution that comes about as a result. It’s a slippery slope from there.

IMPLICATIONS

If you consider what the smartphone has done to the traditional telephone and computer it seems like we renew our relationship with technology every day, when in reality it’s our insatiable hunger for discovery and revolution that accelerates our social acceptance and integration of new tech into our lives. As new, virtual modal behaviors continue to penetrate our collective psyche, we will continue to see the physical vernacular of everyday objects evolve. A “how a button feels” conversation turns into a “what is a button?” conversation. Once we cross that bridge, when our virtual mental models replace their physical vernacular, we open the door (for better or worse) to redefining our perception of what is real (and what isn’t). In other words, we are approaching a future where we could struggle to differentiate the ‘virtual reality’ from actual ‘reality.’

As these technologies evolve, they will reshape our lives in ways we’ve yet to even imagine. Are you ready? We are entering a new phase of virtual reality, blending the digital and the physical—the phyigital reality.

Spoiled indeed.

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About M3 Design
Founded in 1996, M3 Design is a product development company located in Austin, Texas. We craft and execute product development strategies for leading technology-based companies.

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