Digital Empathy: How Brands Can Help Humans Communicate Better With Their Machines

Moving beyond the logical senses to the emotional ones

Humans are effectively trapped in a black box because we perceive the world only through our limited five senses. All our interactions are a prediction based on translations through the five perceivable wavelengths of touch, sound, smell, sight and taste. 

But we have created technology that enhances these natural human abilities. Technology like infrared cameras and high-frequency microphones allows us to see things we cannot naturally see and hear things we cannot naturally hear. Realistic video games and convincing VR experiences can even create completely parallel digital worlds where we are in control of all rules and outcomes. 

Even though technology can help us surpass our natural limits, we are still limited. Why? Because our only way of translating the data of our interactions back into ourselves is by circling back to our five original senses. 

With such limited portals to understand the world, we tend to focus our connections with technology on the more logical side of human senses: vision and audio via screens and speakers. This "function first" way of interacting with technology means we repress our more emotional senses, like smell and taste. And by putting so much emphasis on the more logical senses of sight and sound, technology is fast becoming a layer of "digital pollution." 

Let me explain: 

Gallery goers often view iconic paintings through their smartphones to photograph the picture. In doing so, they reduce the masterpiece to a bunch of pixels, rather than admiring the original's true colors, warmth and scale. The internet is now so littered with photos of Van Gogh's Starry Night that it's almost impossible to identify the painting's correct colors on a Google search page. This is a perfect example of "digital pollution" in action, and it illustrates how technology is driving more logical and less empathetic interactions with the world. And yet empathy is one of humanity's most defining and powerful characteristics. 

According to the Harvard Business Review, emotional connection now matters more than customer satisfaction. Apple is the master of marketing through emotional connection, rather than pure product performance. And this is precisely why people are prepared to pay a premium for Apple products, even when they're outperformed by the PC and Android competition. So brands that want to flex their AI, AR and VR muscle need to prioritize emotional connection over digital pollution. Moreover, they need to ask how their desired technology can connect in more empathic ways. 

Too often, brands' digital experiences are created through logic. "Coded" almost implies "emotionless." And yet we need machines to understand us as humans, not just logical signals. We shouldn't have to learn how to communicate with machines. Machines should have to learn to communicate with us. 

Humans don't interact with machines in the way we interact with each other. How many times have you seen a human high-five or hug their computer? Seems ridiculous, doesn't it? But surely it's not just me who's caressed my laptop in a moment of desperation when my deadline is looming and my IT is failing. This scenario shows that connecting through logical sense alone is a very one-dimensional way for us to communicate with our machines. We may not realize it, but we humans long to communicate with our machines in the same way we do with other humans. So it's time we explored using technology to interact through the more empathic senses of smell and taste. 

"Logical technology" has become incredibly sophisticated. Screens are so hi-res that you can no longer see their pixels. A recording of a bird is now so authentic that it can be mistaken for the real thing. Imagine if this astounding rate of development were applied to technology that capitalized on our more empathic senses, too. Imagine if we could taste, smell and touch artifice through technology in such realistic ways that we could no longer distinguish between the virtual and the real. Powerful stuff for marketers, don't you think?

Brands that want to use hi-tech experiences to connect with audiences need to start thinking about "digital empathy" because digitally empathic technology will dramatically level up marketing in the same way that TV elevated advertising beyond print. 

Although digitally empathic technology may not yet exist, brands can help it become a reality. Brands are often the unsung heroes of technology development—VR wouldn't be where it is today if it weren't for forward-looking marketers eager to experiment with the medium in its very early days. For these pioneering brands, the next frontier is technology that has digital empathy. My question is: Are you prepared to be one of the pioneers?

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Yifei Chai
Yifei Chai is innovation architect at UNIT9.

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