Around two years ago, I worked on a project on the future of play for a toy company (yes, this is my actual job). Leading into that project, I recall really pushing a hypothesis I had been playing with about the concept of “phygital.” At the time, I was reading a lot of Sterling (and his concept of Spimes), Stephenson (and the intertwined Metaverse), and having conversations with friend and fellow Manitoban, Karl Schroeder. Karl was light-years ahead of my thinking and no doubt playing in the shallow end for my benefit, but he did help me explore the edges of a concept that, at the time, felt near-alien, yet today seems almost inevitable. Hell, in the past two years, “phygital” has apparently already been co-opted into a bullshit business term; anything is possible.
Regardless of terminology used, the basic concept at hand is to create objects that have a continuous and fluid dual-existence between the physical and digital worlds. While some would argue that the IoT movement has already achieved this, I would laugh in their face and tell them to stop being so narrow-minded. IoT has been an interesting movement to watch so far, but is still a very discreet, patched-together network of physical objects that we haphazardly assign IP addresses to and hope for the best. It is the extremes of this movement where things start to get really interesting.
True phygital existence is what occurs when either the object itself has somehow achieved an intertwined dual-existence, or the underlying technology that holds both worlds together is so seamless and reliable that we can’t tell the difference. With one keystroke, the world around you should change and conversely, by modifying the physical world around you, there should be digital repercussions. Like parallel universes stacked atop each other, the true form of the phygital concept has the potential to create a beautiful and interconnected set of worlds where we can perfectly digitize and understand the state and history of everything and anything around us (or conversely, create and modify the physical manifestations of our digital dreams).
Though that may seem a bit heady, think through the implications on any one of a thousand scenarios. Imagine creating a human heart that not only tracks every beat perfectly, but can fix a clogged artery with a simple line of code. Picture yourself designing products through CAD that generate real-time physical manifestations which, when needing an update, simply get pushed a v2 patch that modifies the physical geometry of the product.
There are countless examples that show the edges of this movement (LittleBits, inFORM, Osmo, etc.) but none to date that have captured its true essence and value. However, even early days show why this movement is so important: it pulls our heads up out of our phones and screens and turns the entire world around us into an input device, facilitating HCI considerations on every object we create. The phygital world breaks us of our shackles of terrible UIs and unimaginative touchscreens to replace them with a world of unimaginable possibilities.
So… what will you imagine?
Shane Saunderson is the Co-Head of IC/Things.