Close-Up: Technology is making marketing play

Russell Davies visits the Lift conference, where human cyborgs and plastic rabbits are taking interaction to a new level.

Geneva is an odd place. As Los Angeles is to the entertainment industry, so Geneva is to global bureaucracy. You get off the train (in Switzerland, the stations really do feature those Swiss railway clocks you see in the Conran shop) and soon find yourself surrounded by reasonable, thoughtful people, all smoking furiously by publicly sponsored sculptures making points about refugees and the equitable administration of global copyright issues.

The city seems to sit at the heart of a particularly European view of the world; not obsessed with Silicon Valley's breakneck plunge into the future, and not doing a British-style compromise between capitalism and caution.

Geneva believes in a slow, considered version of the future, which mostly just involves surviving long enough for it to arrive.

Which makes it an interesting setting for a conference such as Lift, which describes itself as "a series of events intended to facilitate and promote discussion about new technologies and their impact on our society". These things are normally dominated by wild-eyed, Yankee techno-utopianism, and I thought Lift might offer a refreshing alternative perspective.

The most intriguing discovery for me at Lift was the emerging importance of anthropologists in large corporations, particularly in fields such as product design.

We had fascinating talks from anthropologists and ethnographers at Nokia and Intel (where they have 30 anthropologists on staff), and it makes you realise how much the world has changed for technology companies. They used to live in a fairly comfortable world where their audience was mostly like themselves. They didn't have to look far beyond their own backyards for inspiration and insight. But now, those markets are saturated, and they're making products for people leading very different lives.

Hearing from Younghee Jung of Nokia talking about product workshops they had done in Rio de Janeiro, Mumbai and Accra was both chastening and cheering. It never occurred to me how many people in the major cities of the world need a thoroughly waterproof phone because their lives are constantly flooded.

But, equally, as businesses such as Nokia look for solutions to the technology issues of the developing world, how do you design a mobile phone to be shared by the inhabitants of a whole building? It's clear they'll uncover interesting new features for us comfortable Westerners.

Another big theme of Lift that struck me was playfulness, and how serious and important the subject is. Presentations throughout the three days touched on the importance of understanding play if we are to understand people, but a great one from Robin Hunicke of Electronic Arts demonstrated how useful all this thinking about play is.

The gaming industry is so big and so successful, that really smart people are now paid to spend time thinking hard about the mechanics and motivations of play, and they're coming up with elegant ideas that explain things far beyond the world of video games.

If you think of Facebook as a game, for instance, its appeal suddenly becomes clearer. Ms Hunicke's ideas about identity in games would be hugely useful applied to brands.

Pushing this on even further is the increasing importance of the physical and the real in our technology lives. There was a palpable sense that the internet, as manifest via screens and keyboards, has reached an evolutionary plateau. There's not much raw excitement going on there.

The thrilling moments (thrilling in a Genevan sense, meaning people looked up from their laptops) came when there was talk of how all of this communicative technology gets buried in real objects.

Take Kevin Warwick, a professor of cybernetics at the University of Reading, for example. He's not pussyfooting around with web applications and social software. He's had major surgery to have a chip embedded in his arm and wires connected to his nervous system. He's become a cyborg in order to study how humans can more thoroughly integrate themselves with technology and get the most out of it. Right now, you can see the applications this might have for people with artificial limbs, but how long before you'll be able to steer your PowerPoint in a pitch presentation by merely raising an eyebrow or thinking "next slide"?

On a slightly more trivial level, we had Rafi Haladjian talking to us about Wi-Fi rabbits: those white plastic things you might have seen in the shops. They're called Nabaztag. They connect wirelessly to the internet and seem joyfully pointless. But look beyond the surface and you realise Nabaztag is forging the way for a new kind of digital device, one that lives in the corner of your attention, not the centre of it. And one that interacts through playful physicality.

Nabaztag can smell radio- frequency identification tags and react accordingly. So, in France, you can buy children's books that are tagged so that when you sit them in front of Nabaztag, he starts reading them out. Which is kind of intriguing, but then you realise that you can also record your own version of the story and share it with others, creating a network of people reading stories for each other. And that opens up all sorts of fascinating possibilities for a forward-thinking marketers.

There was a lot at Lift that the agency, marketing and media business could learn from. I would say that the most important was the conference's tendency to look outside itself; if its basic remit is technology, then its desire to embrace all sorts of other things keeps it fresh and vital.

What else should we worry about? We should expect some of our brainiest brains to get plucked from us by the games business, and we should start wondering how much of the way people interact with companies and products might be better understood as play.

We should also wake up to the fact that many of our clients are as informed about the "real world out there" as we are. Yes, we've got some planners, but how many of them are conducting product workshops in Accra? And more agency and media people should be going to Lift. Geneva is easy by train, which can solve your eco-conscience, and it's good to get that thorough European perspective on technology and society.

It's a modest, thoughtful version of our collective futures, and it's well worth considering. So, next year, you might want to think about broadening your mind at Lift.

All the Lift videos can be found at

- Russell Davies' Perspective, p16.