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It’s time for tech to bridge families’ digital divisions

Opinion

Published by:

8 April 2019

Author: Rowan Williams

Image: Google Home and Disney, 2018

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Technology designers must create experiences that encourage future families to re-engage, converse and bond with each other.

According to a study by research firm Opinium, the number of British families eating dinner together has dropped from 57% in 2014 to 48% in 2018. Changes in working culture coupled with technology-driven shifts in our behaviour have meant that family members have become more isolated from each other than ever before.

If we specifically consider technology, it’s true that the new digital experiences that have surfaced over the past two decades, such as gaming and web browsing, are particularly solitary activities, with people living through the portal of a 16:9 screen. Experiences in the home are no longer separated by rooms but by devices.

It is important to note, however, that we have not historically had the means to digitally connect people in the physical world on a large scale. Technology is cyclical in nature and we have to make mistakes in order to fine-tune experiences for the future. Despite this, as designers, we have a responsibility to create experiences that encourage families to converse and bond with each other, thereby enhancing their lives in a meaningful way.

'Technology that encourages decision-making is crucial. For one, it helps to stimulate conversation.' 

Traditionally, bonding has been encouraged through physical experiences. In the context of the home, playing a board game is the best example of this as it encourages conversation and emotion, and most significantly, decision-making among family members. Decision-making is crucial. For one, it helps to stimulate conversation – something that was evident with the Black Mirror episode Bandersnatch, released in late 2018, in which viewers were tasked with making decisions to influence the main character throughout the episode. This was an excellent and very real example of the way in which digital experiences can be altered so that they are no longer passive. In this case, the TV-watching experience became a conversational one, whereby family members were encouraged to discuss each decision together.

Google Home and Disney, 2018
'Families are more isolated than ever, with experiences in the home no longer separated by rooms but by devices.'

The idea of decision-making can also be applied to the experience of listening to music. Like watching tv, this is somewhat passive at present, but if audio brands could make it more of a curated experience in which the listeners have huge levels of control, families could once again be engaged and encouraged to bond with each other. For instance, they could decide to blend elements from different tracks, dialling up and down features of a particular song based on their preferences.

But it doesn’t always come down to decision-making. Creating truly immersive experiences can help generate an environment of shared emotional response. Sony’s 360 Reality Audio, unveiled at CES, enables listeners to feel as if they are immersed in sound from all directions and that they are part of the music. Certainly, this is something that a family could experience together in the home.

'Gaming experiences could be used to immerse children in learning environments.' 

Moving away from audio, this immersion could also be provided in a visual sense. Projection and sensing technology could be used to understand everyone’s individual, physical requirements, with mixed reality bringing an element of interest to a situation that may have initially struggled to engage some family members. Gaming experiences could be used to immerse children in learning environments. The Wonderscope AR app, for example, promotes a new type of experience in which children are empowered with narratives that encourage movement, reading aloud and exploration.

Personally, I am of the opinion that relationships between people should be kept as natural and physical as possible, but if implemented in the right way, technology-led experiences like this can help complement our human conversations and interactions for the better, creating truly meaningful interactions with the technology around us.

Rowan Williams is creative lead at Flux, a division of Panasonic Design

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