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Enchanted Objects (and the future of digital branding) – Speed Summary

In preparing a report on the psychology of wearable tech at the London College of Fashion, I’ve found ‘Enchanted Objects: Design, Human Desire and the Internet of Things’, by MIT’s David Rose, consistently thought-provoking. For consumer brands looking for opportunities in the Internet of Things (IoT), Enchanted Objects is a useful read, highlighting the key opportunities to seize and obstacles to avoid.

Here’s a quick summary.

Beyond the Tyranny of the Glass Slab

Rose has a vision for the Internet of Things, let’s use it to re-enchant the world we live in.  Make ordinary everyday objects extraordinary by infusing them with simple sensors, simple connectivity and simple appeals to our five senses.   The enchanted umbrella that glows when it’s forecast to rain, the enchanted orb that glows different colours based on whatever matters to you (temperature, surf or snow report, stock market movements), or the enchanted pill box that glows when it’s time to take your medicine. Yep, there’s a lot of glowing going on in Enchanted Objects, and that’s because sight is our richest sense – and we have a lot of peripheral vision, but don’t do much with it. From glowing tables to glowing jewellery and apparel, one simple take-home for consumer brands is this – how could we make our product more useful, elegant or desirable by making it glow? This apparently bizarre question may just turn out to be a whole lot smarter and more profitable than the one many brands are posing to themselves – how can we build an app? Most brand apps end up relegated to the digital dead pool that is screen three on the ubiquitous glass slabs we carry around with us. Rather than dead apps, could the future of digital marketing lie in enchanting everyday products with a little digital magic?

The Future of Ambient Marketing – Enchanted Objects

Ambient Marketing involves advertising on items an objects in our immediate environment (i.e. our ambient environment) – think ads on bus tickets, on handles of supermarket shopping carts. Given falling costs of sensors and connectivity, the future of ambient marketing may lie in advertising on everyday objects – think Kindle’s special offers. But the big opportunity for Rose, is to create enchanted and enchanting brand avatars, physical manifestations of the brand that surround us. The Kindle makes Amazon real, bringing the brand into real life, just as the American Express card is an object with a magnetic strip and embedded radio frequency identification (RFID), but also an avatar for your secure spending power and a symbol of prestige.  The big IoT opportunity for consumer brands is to create enchanted object that becomes brand avatars – signalling personality and value in our ambient surroundings (Rose headed up a company called Ambient Devices – information at a glance).

Forget Virtual Reality, we want Enchanted Reality

Rose paints a vision for the future of consumer IoT where technology enchants the real world, full or everyday objects, rather than replaces it with either a pixelated overlay (augmented reality) or an alternative software-based virtual reality. Having led a number of enchanted reality projects, and startups Rose outlines the four critical success features of enchanted objects

  1. An ordinary familiar object, augmented and connected to the cloud.
  2. Passive sensing, so you don’t have to manually record anything.
  3. Unavoidable, ambient information display for constant feedback.
  4. Emotional engagement and/or social incentives.

Glanceability and Loveability

Enchanted Objects are simply smart objects with attitude. Rose argues that we need to make smart technology loveable by humanising it and making it more familiar – think of the smiley form on the top of the Roomba, or Alexa – an AI with whom many have an emotional attachment. One missing step in so many connected technology #fails, is to anthropomorphise the object, making it more human. In addition to being loveable, enchanting objects means making them glanceable – allowing interpretation through a quick glance. Too many smart objects involve learning complex interfaces – and are therefore doomed to failure. If you want success in consumer IoT, make sure you’re glanceable and loveable

Glanceability – Stick to Steps 1-3 of Information Processing

1. Is the data worthy of attention now?
2. What is the information in summary? What’s the headline?
3. What’s the trend of the information? Is it getting better or worse?
4. Finally, what are the details of the data itself?

Dodging Obsolescence

Rose notes two big problems with enchanted objects, or their utilitarian siblings, smart objects

1) objects go out of fashion quickly (leading to obsolesence)
2) technology goes out of date quickly (leading to obsolescence)

His two part solution is ‘modularity’ – replaceable hardware modules that can be changed inexpensively, and over the air (OTA) cloud-based software updates. The book is light on examples of hardware modularity, but notes falling costs of sensors and connectivity are making this viable – we just need to build modularity into products.  Rose also note that OTA updates are a significant commercial opportunity for brands. Imagine Tesla selling OTA update/upgrade packages with one touch/one word “authorize” to bill a the credit card on file.

Electricity and Swarms

Enchanted Objects finishes by proposing one metaphor and one trend that will help brands see the future of IoT. The metaphor is electricity. Think of networks as electricity – plentiful, invisible, and powering the products we take for granted. The key to spotting opportunities in smart technology – whether enchanting or not – is to think of networks as the new electricity. If your product was powered by a network, what could it do? For example, networking an infant’s onesie can allow parents to monitor breathing, movement and position The trend Rose pitches is ’swarms’ – the atomisation of artificial intelligence into a myriad (swarm) of connected devices. Each dumb, but together smart. We shouldn’t fear a ‘singularity’ as in Kubrick’s AI dystopia, when HAL an omniscient and omnipotent executive AI takes control, because that’s not how technology – or intelligence for that matter works. The future of AU is not about central intelligence, it’s about distributed intelligence. So don’t think KITT from Knight Rider. Instead think antilock brakes, autodimming headlights, rain-sensor windshield wipers, a navigation system, cruise control—hundreds of technology piece-parts. Distributed.

Take Away

From connected locks to connected apparel and accessories, the Enchanted Objects featured in Rose’s book are kooky, enchanting, and sometimes useful, but what they are not are runaway commercial successes – yet. Consumer IoT may be the future, but right now – sensor-based connectivity is technology all dressed up and no where to go. It’s interesting and mildly ironic that Rose himself has left his enchanted world of enchanted objects and succumbed the the tyranny of the glass slab with an brand recognition app for detecting brands in social media photos.  Nevertheless, the idea of using digital to enchant the world, rather than dehumanise it is an inspiring vision for all in digital marketing

Eight Examples of Enchanted Objects

  • 1. The Enchanted Jacket – Melissa Chow‘s design inflates a little to replicate the sensation of a hug when someone likes you on Facebook

hug jacket

  • 2. The Enchanted Shirt – the Hug Shirt from CuteCircuit transforms a text hug into a hug sensation for the wearer

hug shirt

  • 3. The Enchanted Sweater – GER mood garments that change colour based on mood of wearer

mood sweaters

  • 4. The Enchanted Dress – gaze activated, this dress by Ying Gao has patterns that move when you stare


  • 5. The Enchanted Umbrella – handle glows when the weather forecast warns of rain (see also the oombrella project and the haz umbrella)

6. The Enchanted Tattoo (temporary tattoo/plaster) from L’Oreal warns of UV exposure


  • 7. The enchanted onesie from Mimobaby monitors an infant’s respiration, movement, and temperature


  • 8. The Enchanted Orb glows to whatever matters most to you (e.g. snow/surf reports)

enchanted orb

The World of Enchanted Objects


Written by
Dr Paul Marsden
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Digital wellbeing covers the latest scientific research on the impact of digital technology on human wellbeing. Curated by psychologist Dr. Paul Marsden (@marsattacks). Sponsored by WPP agency SYZYGY.