The new terms that describe the physical-digital space

May 8, 2013

in digital, experience, maker stuff

leonardo-digitalI wrote a post on the new publishing platform Medium on the names that several players are giving to Physical-Digital Products, Services and Experiences.

(Why did I write it on Medium? I wanted to try it and that was enough of a good reason for me.)

I’m re-posting it here to avoid the content being lost in case they close it sometime in the near future, like it happened with Posterous, where I wrote about products that I liked, after it was acquired by Twitter. Yes, I did get a backup of my posts on Posterous and Medium does offer a backup tool too (and I believe that also Tumblr does, where I host a couple of micro-blogs for very specific subjects that wouldn’t fit in this or my other blog, but that’s not the entire point. It’s about owning your own [online] identity (this blog is self hosted), like Marco Arment writes in this article on hi self hosted blog.

Physical-Digital Products, Services and Experiences: There’s a Name for That!

The new terms that describe the physical-digital space

Now that the Internet (especially the world wide web) has come of age, its applications are finally maturing at a more noticeable speed. For the last few years, there’s been an “excess of digital”, with thousands of tools being launched but very few of them sticking.

Since the times of Leonardo (da Vinci), our “human interface” hasn’t changed much. Most of us still have two hands, two ears, two eyes, one mouth, etc and our way of interacting with the world around us is still based on our five senses and emotions. Yes, we’ve picked up a few new behaviors (like that of interacting with glass rectangles for satisfying several of our needs, entertainment and work) but all in all, we haven’t changed that much.

The maturity of digital tools and services has reached a point in which now we see more and more of them trying to bridge the gap between physical and digital, often in novel ways and adapt to our natural ways of interaction by involving the use of more senses (not just sight or the so called “touch”).

In the process, we have created terms to describe these new digital tools, like “apps”, which is almost unequivocally used to describe mobile applications, albeit for different kinds of platforms.

Even the usage of the words “real” and “virtual” has taken a slightly different meaning. Until recently, those of us who live and work online referred toa face-to-face meeting as it happening IRL (“in real life”) as opposed to interactions just via digital channels (e.g.: email, chat, Skype, etc). In the documentary TPB AFK: The Pirate Bay Away From KeyboardPeter Sunde — one of the founders of The Pirate Bay — mentions that they don’t use the expression IRL but “away from keyboard”, because they believe the internet is for real, or in other words, if you spend your time behind a computer screen, that IS your real life too.

What’s in a name

So how do we call this space, those products and services (and why not, experiences too) that merge the physical and digital domain into an unicum?

Several actors have come with their own names for them, whose appication varies depending on the nature of the product, service (or experience). Let’s look at some of them:

Physibles: created by The Pirate Bay and announced on January 23rd 2012, it refers to data objects (i.e. digital 3-D designs) that are able (and feasible) to become physical.

We believe that the next step in copying will be made from digital form into physical form. It will be physical objects. Or as we decided to call them: Physibles. Data objects that are able (and feasible) to become physical. We believe that things like three dimensional printers, scanners and such are just the first step. We believe that in the nearby future you will print your spare sparts for your vehicles. You will download your sneakers within 20 years. [The Pirate Bay blog]

Phygital: phygital is the concept of creating an interactive user experience through the use of technology to bridge the digital and physical worlds. The term is a trademark of Momentum, a global marketing agency.

PhysiDigital: similar to the previous one, it describes a physical manifestation of a digital experience. The website Physidigital.comprovides inspiration of these kind of experiences and is curated byRyan Bigge from the design and technology consultancy Nurun.

The Internet of Things (IoT): is probably the most famous expression to refer to something that connects physical and digital “stuff”, mainly products or objects connected via the internet (definition on Wikipedia). IoT has been used to describe different kinds of interactions from industrial to consumer goods and is gaining traction. In the mainstream, even though consumers might not refer to it as IoT, which is in fact considered a geeky expression.

Note that while the IoT requires by definition that objects are connected to the internet (or a private network), the others don’t necessarily have to.

What’s the point of coining new words to refer to this space?

Well, first and foremost it helps to better communicate a specific experience/product/service — like the aforementioned “apps” in the mobile space — towards its users.

There are already hundres of products, services and experiences marrying digital and physical and in the next few years we’ll be seeing them grow exponentially and become mainstream as, say, social media related products, services and experiences have become in the last decade.

As for me, I don’t like proprietary names (like Phygital) and IoT is limited to some specific applications. For the time being I’ll keep usingphysical/digital until a better term emerges from the community or market (or I trademark my own name ;-).

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