The Internet of Things is real, writes Roscoe Williamson. It has arrived. It’s disrupting businesses, changing governments and revolutionising the way we interact with the world.
In the next five years, Business Insider estimates that brands are going to spend around $5 trillion on the Internet of Things. For a third year in a row, the subject has dominated CES, the global consumer technology trade show. And the leading digital living research company, Parks Associates, predicts that there will be almost 55 million smart home devices in our homes by 2020.
All very good, I hear you say. I’m sure we will all welcome a degree of helpful automation into our personal and work lives, but what might this all sound like, and why is it important for brands to start thinking about this now?
Imagine the following scene: It’s 10pm on a Friday night in the year 2019. You’ve committed to yet another dry January and it’s been a very, very long week. You find yourself in the kitchen and your washing machine is wailing at you. Its cycle has ended and you’re out of fabric softener. Meanwhile, from all angles of the house, your latest five voice assistants wake up and start vying for that all important product reorder. Each one trying to out trump the other with more and more outlandish one-liners.
The fridge now starts to squeal at you. Your milk supply is low and your latest medical wearable kicks into action. In real-time, this menacing bracelet pulls data from the cloud and helpfully ‘sonifies’ it into a garish sequence of tones and beeps, warning you that your calcium levels are catastrophically low.
Sounds pretty bleak doesn’t it?
In order for us all not to simply reach for the mute button, brands need to start future-proofing for the sound of tomorrow now.
The continuously evolving professions of UI and UX have shied away from sound in the past and for good reason. Ultimately, anything unnecessary for the end user should be eliminated. Visual user interfaces are dominant at the moment. We have screens on tablets, phones, watches and increasingly tiny devices. We don’t need to hear something if we can see it’s happened.
There are some UI sounds out there bucking the trend. A swift sequence of tumbling notes tells you that your iPhone battery is about to die. An arpeggiated major chord notifies you that you’ve sold those old Levi’s on eBay. We have Earcons like the WhatsApp ‘pop’, the Twitter refresh ‘droplet’ and the Facebook Messenger ‘bubble’. These are all intrinsically satisfying in a way you can’t quite put your finger on. Over time these audio icons embed into our lives and we accept them culturally.
As we move more towards an era of advanced virtual assistants, more voice and gesture interaction and less visual interfaces, sound will become more important. Apple’s email swoosh sound is an early example of this. One simple sound tells you that your action is complete, no visual confirmation needed. You are now free to continue with your next task, hands free.
In the case of less visual UI, many actions with a degree of uncertainty will benefit from this type of sonic confirmation. Did that file upload? Have I hit my 10,000 steps? Is the child lock on?
Voice will no doubt play a major part in this but sound and music have the ability to add further brand emotion or familiarity to an experience. It also doesn’t have to stop at a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ confirmation.
‘Sonification’ is the concept of auditing data and visualising it through sound. We decipher sound via changes in timbre, pitch, volume and spatial orientation. A simple fluctuation in tone can tell you as much information as a whole sentence of speech and be far less intrusive with it.
Central devices will be hubs for all your smart information, collating data from the cloud and sonifying it back to you. How your brand sounds amongst all the others in this cluttered environment will need to be designed with care. Branding, marketing, advertising, product and sound design teams will need to work in tandem in order to craft the best usability, aesthetics and eliminate any superfluous function.
The disciplines of sonic branding and UI sound services are becoming intrinsically linked. Clients are starting to think about what sound world they want to own in the future, not just in their communications but in all touchpoints, including their products. In order for this to happen, a holistic approach is needed and the ground work starts now.
Not only can the soundscape of tomorrow be more far more pleasurable, but there is the possibility of helping people’s lives through sound whilst simultaneously adding brand value.
Brands need to start creating a sound ecology that differentiates them whilst supporting their consumers. As we interact with a product, watch a commercial or experience a retail environment, it is only the brands of the future that have a fully considered, cohesive and familiar sonic identity that will stop us reaching for the mute button.