‘Phygital’ spaces – when two worlds meet

CAPE TOWN – The digital revolution started in the 1950s with the transformation and switch of analog and mechanical activities to digital activities. Today the reverse tendency is becoming apparent as virtual technology merges with the physical world.

When the physical and digital worlds merge or overlap it is referred to as a phygital space, a fairly new concept where aspects of physical experiences are integrated with digital technology. Phygital, a neologism from the synthesis of “physical” and “digital”, was first used in the advertising and marketing field to describe the blending of digital and physical experiences, but is currently used in a much wider sense.

Due to interactive technology, phygital spaces make real-world experiences more engaging. The technology underlying phygital spaces is the Internet of Things (IoT), which connect digital objects to physical actions, thus merging the physical and digital worlds to enhance real-world experiences. 

The IoT also entails numerous physical sensors that, when triggered, lead to digital outputs. These phygital spaces are characterised by technologies such as AI assistants, robotics, computer vision, voice recognition, virtual reality, augmented reality, and geospatial data that are transforming living spaces into digitally enriched environments. And often it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between the physical and the digital or the “real” and the “simulated.” In these merged phygital spaces, objects, tools, and even bodies can be turned into “programmable interfaces” creating totally new ways of experiencing space.

One of the properties of this merged world is that they are sensitive to the presence of people and aware of their situational context (context awareness) due to the integration of embedded sensors in everyday objects and devices. These embedded sensors communicate via wireless networks to actuators in order to automate several operations and reduce human intervention. The phygital environment also enables natural interaction, enabling people to control computers via gestures, voice, and movements.

In the business world, phygital is becoming an imperative for companies to enhance the physical and digital customer service experience. The physical and digital worlds are no longer separate. If companies want to survive the fourth industrial revolution, they have to use technology to improve their customer experience models by combining the best aspects of digital and physical commerce to create the ideal integrated experience for the consumer. 

Phygital spaces consist of the three important “I’s”: Immediacy, Immersion, and Interaction. The first two, immediacy and immersion, come from the digital realm, while the third, interaction, comes from the physical realm. A successful commercial strategy must combine all three of these elements. The best place to start with a phygital space is to determine any friction points and then use technology to solve the problem and drive customer convenience.

Say for example you are looking for a certain product. You go to the retail store, look around and finally find the preferred product. But when you want to pay for the product, you notice an extremely long checkout line and because of time constraints you totally abandon the purchase. Is there a way to make this shopping experience more pleasant and “frictionless” for the customer? The Amazon Go store achieved great success with their automated checkout process where the customer scans a QR code with their smartphone upon entering the store, select the product they need from the shelves, and then simply walk out of the store without passing through the traditional checkout line. The customer’s linked bank account or credit card is charged automatically. 

Nike has a similar model at its store in New York City. These phygital spaces make the shopping experience streamlined and convenient for the busy and fast-paced lifestyle of today.

Several new start-up companies are developing smart trolleys to eliminate the queues and waiting in checkout lines. Cameras and sensors are added to the trolleys, combined with artificial intelligence (AI) to keep track of what the customer has put in the trolley. Customers simply pay by using a credit card, Apple or Google pay. However, with the widespread alternative usage of trolleys on the streets of South Africa, I doubt if this technology will get a foothold in our country.

Rebecca Minkoff, a fashion store for women, may look like a traditional store, but creates a unique experience due to phygital technology. If you approach the mirrors on the wall of the store, it becomes apparent that they are massive interactive touchscreens that will immediately ask you what you would like to drink – coffee, tea or champagne. After receiving your drink you start choosing the items you would like to try on from the interactive mirror and then continue to the phygital fitting rooms where it will be delivered. The fitting-room mirror and your cell-phone will communicate and thus know you have entered. If a different size clothing is needed, it is requested via the touchscreen and delivered by a staff member. Akin to the Uber App, the touchscreen will display the name of the sales associate and when the clothes will arrive at the fitting room. The phygital spaces are used to make the customer experience smooth and pleasant.

Another example is where a customer experience difficulty in completing a form. A conversational bot could easily be used to guide the customer step-by-step through the form until completion.

In the Tour de Fance augmented reality is used to provide a three-dimensional view of the profile of a specific stage of the race. While watching the cyclists cycling across the Alps, the observer can log into the three-dimensional view of the actual mountain stage. Since the bicycles have tracking sensors that are embedded in the augmented reality experience, the observer can have a three-dimensional perspective of what these cyclists are actually experiencing. It provides a very realistic merging of the physical and digital worlds.

Some airlines use social media to create phygital experiences. If a passenger has booked online, the geolocation of their phone when they arrive at the airport will trigger a welcome greeting and guidance to the right check-in desk.

With the growing of the IoT, sensors may be able to proactively detect that a car or electronics device needs service and could call a technician without the customer having to make an appointment. These right place and right time interactions are designed to predictively engage customers and service their needs.

One of the environments in which phygital spaces will make a large impact in the future is the classroom. It is envisioned that in future the classroom walls will not just separate the classrooms, but will together create a 360-degree interactive landscape between students and educational contents and material to ensure optimal learning. Black and white boards will be replaced by holograms and student desks will become part of the phygital revolution by becoming interactive cloud-connected smart workstations that function as mini-hubs for learning and submitting of all work. Holograms will be used to provide students with the ability to explore content by “seeing”, “touching” and “experiencing” what they are learning at school in a more authentic way.

Although we as humans shape technology it is a well-known fact that this very technology later shape us by changing the way be live and do business. In the future voice and AI technology will increasingly replace keyboard and screen interfaces in a seamlessly blended phygital world. It will be a smart, connected and adaptive environment – a merged reality, which is enhanced by cleverly concealed digital elements that cater to almost every mood en desire we may have.

And companies will combine the various channels frictionless and seamless, whether the customer interacts via a phone call, social media, or e-mail, without the company losing the thread of the communication.

The world of phygital is almost endless and so are the opportunities it presents. 

Professor Louis C H Fourie is a futurist and technology strategist. Lfourie@gmail.com


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