Our new hybrid lives: Tactile virtual experiences and hardware that lives with us

Gadgets

With hybrid models taking off across many aspects of society, it’s clear that though they offer incredible flexibility, the boundary lines between work and personal life are becoming increasingly blurred and emotionally draining.

Ritual has always been a powerful force in shaping our mental and emotional states; the gathering of people, physical totems, wardrobe and space design all work to choreograph that experience. But for people in the hybrid workforce, many of the rituals to which they’ve become accustomed are no longer accessible—their daily work experience involves no gathering, no change in location, and little (if any) wardrobe change.

We are doubling down on hybrid virtual experiences, even though studies reveal that young people who spend more than seven hours a day staring at a screen are more susceptible to depression, anxiety and have greater difficulty in completing tasks. Furthermore, employees are reporting fatigue and exhaustion from a sea of back-to-back meetings that stretch across multiple time zones, making the days feel endless.

Given that so much of the population is currently reliant on computing devices to engage in everything from work and school to shopping, banking and healthcare, we have to start taking a harder look at how we’re designing and developing those devices to better equip us for new rituals for the hybrid virtual world.

Today, computing devices account for every possible scenario, from the traditional desktop workstation to the ultra-portable handheld mobile phone. But what if the design of these objects could help users enforce the boundaries between work and personal life?

For instance, a device with a keyboard in front of a screen conveys “productivity tool,” while a touch tablet experience feels more casual and entertainment-focused. What if remote workers could have the option to switch between these two modalities to signal a switch from “work” to “personal”?

Another area that has exploded into the tech spotlight is video chat and conferencing tools. For many of us, the majority of our interactions are now playing out via virtual meetings on video conferencing apps. HD webcams and ring lights have been in high demand, and the number of virtual backgrounds and effects multiply daily.

But there are still many challenges and limitations to the video conference experience, partly because it’s so dependent on the hardware design. Tools like Zoom, Google Hangouts and Teams have all been racing to keep up with the latest upgrades, but the software can only go so far without tackling hardware hurdles like integrated lighting sources, improved audio or even tactile feedback.

However, if we start to accept these paradigm shifts of in-person to virtual, we can begin to design for the future normal with hardware upgrades like a camera lens no larger than a pixel that disappears into the screen to make it appear as if users are making direct eye contact with their colleagues. Other areas, such as the application of temperature and tactile technologies, can help us feel deeper connections with one another via virtual spaces. There may also be new possibilities in exploring olfactory technologies as immersive experiences continue to evolve.

But what does this hardware evolution actually look like when it comes to production and consumption? While the expediency and convenience of technology is certainly impressive, it comes at a cost to our planet.

Have consumers become Earth’s abusers?

When I think about my most cherished possessions, what they have in common is that they are old and rare. Of course, this is typical of valuable items, but why couldn’t we bring this value system to our tech products? While I swap out my iPhone every year or two, I take tremendous joy in upgrading parts on my Ducati motorcycle bit by bit. I would never think of tossing it out for a brand new one.

As consumer demand for sustainable solutions increase, hardware companies must adjust their offerings. Powerful brands like Apple could be a great leader in strong regenerative practices. Building your own desktop PC is nothing new (especially for hardcore gamers) but imagine a future where all portable tech is modular with swappable upgrades. What if 50 years from now, your smartphone from 2025 is a still functional and highly valued piece of vintage tech?

The reality of our new normal is that the plethora of devices is not going away, while software developments are continuing to make leaps and bounds. It’s time we started thinking about our devices as objects to keep and care for, repairing and refurbishing things like phones and computers to keep up with the latest advancements, much like we do with our cars or even our homes.

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