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Brand Sensorama: Retail Immersion via the Five Senses

Getting the customer to trust ‘brand-sensoramas’ may be more than a technical exercise. We have already started to see ‘brand-lash’, and some consumers will contest the use of public space particularly in relation to questions about what is and isn’t ‘real’. Brands that misrepresent themselves in relation to sense associations could be in big trouble. Understanding how the senses work will be critical. It is also increasingly important to push a message that makes sense in relation to the wider cultural context.


‘We are living at a moment when the definition of things is open for negotiation,’ says graphic designer Bruce Mao. ‘A design is after all a ‘thing’ open to definition.’ In his book, Life Style, Mao sets out a manifesto of engagement with what the author calls the ‘global image economy’ of technology, e-commerce and celebrity culture. ‘Technology is allowing and in some sense demanding and promoting an embedded intelligence beneath the surface of our work,’ he says. To avoid producing ‘mountains of message that mean nothing’ the designer should not, Mau insists, ‘say without thinking’ but rather ‘illuminate the context’ in which work is produced and take authorial responsibility for the client’s message.

Ways of seeing: Research demonstrating that what we expect to see determines the things we actually see has implications for everything from road signage to X-ray diagnosis. British scientists, who studied viewing behaviour at the National Gallery, London, believe that the amount of visual information we pick up from the environment depends on what we were looking for in the first place. Using infrared cameras, the team from the University of Derby mapped visitors’ eye movements and showed that triggers, such as prompts or the painting’s narrative, changed the way artefacts were read. Research undertaken at Harvard University, meanwhile, indicates that people rely more on memory than visual stimulus to interpret the world.

Ways of reading: A study by the Poynter Institute suggests that online reading patterns are markedly different to those for book reading. With online news, for example, people tend to focus on the text before moving on to the graphics and photos; with newspapers, it’s the other way around. The study also suggests online news is read more, with 75 per cent of articles finished compared with 30 per cent.

Ways of Hearing: When the jazz musician Sun Ra performed at a Chicago mental hospital a patient who had been catatonic for many years leapt up and demanded to know ‘Do you call that music?’ Music journalist, Ben Thompson, ponders the experience of music in Ways of Hearing: A User’s Guide to the Pop Psyche, from Elvis to Eminem a book that looks at how we listen to music, how it defines who we are and also its ability to transport us. Says the author: ‘Since the personality of the pop performer is an ideal – projected on to a screen inside our heads to elicit admiration or opprobrium, according to taste – then how it is constructed raises issues for everybody.’

Ways of tasting: Rather than looking for ways to simulate food, the trend is towards reappraising the ‘real thing’. Journalist Carlo Petrini was so horrified to discover a McDonald’s moving to his home in Rome he formed the Slow Food Movement. That was 1986, but the movement now draws 100,000 members, in some 150 countries, to the cause of protecting personal pleasure from the go-faster culture that fast food exemplifies. Embracing everything ‘from good eating to the quality of hospitality, services, facilities and the urban fabric itself’ the movement is beginning to exert influence in areas like the safeguarding of traditional culture as much as in eco-compatible food production, says Alberto Montebello, co-ordinator of Slow Cities, an offshoot of Slow Food. But ‘slow anything’ isn’t simply the antidote to a hyper connected world. Preferring organic tomatoes to canned is also a marker of taste and demonstrates, for example, that one has ‘time wealth’.

Ways of smelling: ‘The senses of taste and smell are often overlooked to the more obvious senses of sight, hearing and touch,’ says psychologist Susan Schiffman, ‘but their loss or distortion can have equally devastating consequences.’ Schiffman and her colleagues have discovered that certain drugs distort the smell and flavour of foods so much that some patients give up taking regular medication. Smell is thought to have an influence on emotions, memory, mate choice, and even the immune system. Scientists Stockhorst and Gritzmann injected insulin into volunteers while exposing them to a particular smell. Observing their blood glucose level drop, the scientists repeated the experiment using just the smell trigger. The test group’s blood glucose fell again.
 Ways of touching: Whole-hand sensing (haptic) technologies, such as Vti’s CyberGrasp, allow the user to reach in and ‘physically interact with simulated computer content’. It promises everything from better surgery techniques to allowing designers to feel products on their computer monitors. ‘Touch is capable of doing things that the visual channel cannot,’ says Vincent Hayward, professor of electrical engineering at McGill University. ‘With touch we sense pressure and texture,’ he says, ‘we detect resistance and can apply force in return’. 

Action on Hearing Loss [FILM]

X-Ray Vision Tank [FILM]

Google Glasses [FILM]