What makes a luxury product worth the price tag? Is it the material quality of the product, the warm smile of the sales assistant, or the intricate beauty of the packaging? Actually, it's all of the above - the crux of luxury is customer experience. Luxury products are a pleasure to buy, own and use, and therein lies much of their value.
Digital technology can deliver new kinds of pleasurable experience - consider the first time you picked up an iPad. Whilst a certain clunkiness has tended to hold digital back, things are changing - and the experiential value of digital is poised to breathe new life into luxury design.What kind of product might arise from infusing the luxury sector with digital technology?
Imagine a ring adorned with a single, glowing and pulsing pixel. This digital diamond will shine brighter on your anniversary, or when near its twin; it will remember noteworthy days, and remind you of them a month or a year later by glowing more brightly. In other words, the pixel ring takes the emotional resonance of a diamond ring a step further.
Or what about a luxury watch? Digital watches are hardly a novel idea, but they have not made great inroads into the luxury end of the market. What if artists and designers were commissioned to animate digital watch faces in limited editions? What if an animated bezel changed slowly as you move between timezones, between day and night, into and out of certain buildings?Adaptive fabrics
Looking further in to the future, adaptive fabrics could elevate the humble handbag. Imagine a haptic surface, which changes if the phone inside is ringing - or merely to reflect your outfit. The texture, pattern or even colour of the fabric could vary. That's not to mention more prosaic practical uses - a tiny GPS module sewn into the lining that ensures your £1,000 clutch doesn't go astray.
These ideas may seem surreal, but the technology is maturing, and luxury brands are likely to be the first to benefit. The higher price-point of luxury products means that the cost of such technologies is less prohibitive - and the best ideas will spread quickly. As the costs fall, high street brands will benefit from these innovations, too.
A more established role for digital lies in service, and many luxury brands have already delved in to good effect. High-end fashion retailers are starting to provide remote stylist consultations to busy customers, and concierge services - such as Quintessentially and Vertu - are, through smartphones, all but omnipresent. Technologies such as natural language voice control simplify things, delivering an effortless experience befitting of a luxury brand.
Digital technology can reinvigorate the luxury sector by evolving both the service layer around products, and the products themselves. The technology is in place. It's up to designers to explore if pixels, like diamonds, are forever.
Contagious Insider consultant Dan Southern
poses some questions:Technology is highly ephemeral - is there a danger that by incorporating technology into luxury goods in the way you describe, it runs the risk of jeopardising that sense of timelessness which makes so many luxury items so precious?
A lot of exciting tech is maturing right now. Take Apple
's Retina displays, which provide more detail than the human eye can resolve. Voice control, which until recently was a bit of a gimmick, is getting rather good. If we can tell a computer what to do in natural language, then what's the next step? I think specs will become less of a priority, interfaces will become largely invisible - and tech will consequently be woven deeply into a much wider range of products. This is where interaction design will play a vital role in the design process.
Heritage, provenance and storytelling are also a vital part of the luxury brand equation. Are there the creators in digital / hi-tech out there that customers will value enough to pay super premiums for?
I think there are. Imagine if Jonathan Ive
suddenly made a limited edition range of notebooks for Apple - they'd sell like hot cakes. I also don't think heritage is mandatory if the idea is compelling enough - that idea will either thrive on its own, or be snapped up by an established player.
I actually envisage a situation where digital is baked into existing design processes. The coders will sit with the textile designers at Burberry, and develop a product together. So, the established luxury brands will continue to benefit from the heritage - and the loyal customer base - that they have build up. They will just add another string to their design bows.
Do you think that the luxury sector would be prepared for the challenge that 'counterfeiting' poses here? Might defending interactive luxury experiences be even more of a challenge than in the current goods space?
That depends on what the digital aspect is. If digital is adding a service component, then it doesn't really matter, as it will sit around the product anyway.
Where digital is built into products - well, there's no reason that counterfeiting will get worse.The pixel ring I describe above will still be made of gold, will still have the jeweller's mark on the back, and will still be bought from Links. Obviously, there's always a risk, but to me incorporating another design element will make things harder to fake, not easier - particularly if that element means the product is digitally connected.
Judging by what I saw at Camden market this weekend, Chanel handbags are copied quite a lot as things stand - I don't certainly don't think tech will make that situation worse.
Are there any companies, brands or creators currently leading the way here that you admire?
Very few. I think we can take heart from things like TripIt
, an app that pulls together travel itineraries for you from confirmation emails. OK, it's not a luxury product per se - in fact, it's free - but using it is a simple and effortless experience. Add the crafted beauty of a luxury product to that, and you have something really special.With 'open-source' source such a powerful philosophy and element of the digital world, is digital scarcity simply counter-culture and subversive, rather than premium?
The open source and hacker communities have always been a wellspring of digital creativity, but seldom of design finesse. People tend to buy Macs rather than Linux machines, because the former are much more pleasurable to use than the latter.
I see digital luxury in the same light - innovation will come from everywhere, but craft will be needed to turn this innovation into a lovely experience. I think luxury brands are well-poised to provide that craft.Daljit Singh is executive creative director of Conran Singh, London