Commerce and Consumer Goods

Physical Twins: New experiences for your customers!

9 minutes to read
With insights from...

  • In times of Corona and growing digitalisation, the customer need for physical interaction is increasing

  • The "physical twin" offers the possibility of making purely digital-virtual offerings tangible in the real world

  • Customers receive digital products, merged with a physical-haptic experience

[You read that correctly: Physical Twins, not Digital Twins!]
While the world is becoming increasingly virtualised and digitalised as a result of the Corona pandemic, we humans are developing a great longing for direct interaction. Our eye for the essential becomes sharper.

Classic telephone conference calls? These will probably be rare in the future – the other person's facial expression is too important. Conversely, we now even hold interactive online workshops, which are extremely productive after just a short period of getting used to them. Participants can brainstorm more effectively using their own individual touch screens than if we all crowd together in a room in front of the same whiteboard. And vice versa: what does this "New Normal" mean if my product had a purely digital-virtual character even before Corona? Am I then on the safe side – or, if anything, do I have to think about any new needs that my customers may have?

You notice something. Everything's merging! The physical and the digital are becoming interwoven. A new "haute cuisine" of customer relations is being created!

I am convinced that we are all affected and must think hard about the "New Normal"! If we don't, then businesses, and in particular the manufacturers and suppliers of purely digital-virtual products or services, could miss an opportunity here. As is so often the question: how can I get closer to my customers? How can I extend my products or services to encourage interaction – perhaps even provide a tactile experience? Everyone who has ever taken a new iPhone out of its packaging knows this feeling: there is something of value in this first physical encounter. We humans need that. Of course, I then very quickly start using the device for virtual things – and yet its tactile quality is crucial to the perception of value. It's the 'icing on the cake' in our relationship with the manufacturer's brand.

Our hypothesis: in the coming years, many providers will have to come up with something relating to their purely digital-virtual products and services so that in the real world they can become more "comprehensible" in the truest sense of the word. Sometimes it takes a good dose of creativity to take something purely digital and make it tangible. But it works.

We believe that a whole new product category is emerging in this area! We call it the "physical twin" – the physical twin of a digital whatever. 

What you can learn from the digital twin applicable to the physical twin

You're familiar with this already, but the other way around? Certainly: thanks to the IoT, devices, machines and products that used to function autonomously are now digitally networked, and data is extracted and collected, for example to digitally reproduce the operating status: the "digital twin" is born. It is used to speed up development, secure operations, optimise maintenance, gain deeper insight into the real use of the product, and install on-demand software updates. Our bread-and-butter business at Zühlke. This is primarily of interest to the manufacturers: they gain deeper insights than ever before into what is pleasing about the product, and what is not. For users, the first step is not necessarily a rewarding experience: they usually have to register in some way, without having any clear idea at the beginning about what advantages the Digital Twin will bring them later. The user experience is only enriched in the second step, when surprising additional features are delivered or exciting insights into their own usage become clear.

With physical twins, interestingly, the increase in benefit is the other way round: It is not the manufacturer but the users who feel a clear added value in the first step. They have the product quite literally "in their hand". Registration comes afterwards, and in the best case seems quite natural: after all, you want to access the digital services that are hidden behind the physical twin. Too theoretical? I acknowledge that it is high time for some specific examples that will illustrate what is going on out there.

Example 1 of a physical twin – Straight out of the children's room!

Innovations often first happen in the gaming industry – or even in the children's room. Do you know products such as the toniebox or the tigerbox TOUCH? Some years ago, their manufacturers had the brilliant idea of transforming their rights to digital content for children and young people, which they had collected over the years, into a form that would be somehow more "tangible" – and thus selling them more effectively. And that doesn't just apply to the box itself, which plays media content like a cassette recorder or CD player used to do. It is, in fact, much more about the media products themselves, which are becoming tangible again: small cards or figures, for example, represent an episode of a children's series – they are the actual key to the "physical twin", and they use NFC or Bluetooth to communicate to the associated box what it has to play.

This gives rise to new as well as traditional applications: Grandpa and Grandma can now buy their grandson the latest episode of "Bibi and Tina" for his birthday again – and as a physical object, not just a voucher: They can pack the card nicely and give it as a present. Compare the child's emotional experience when unpacking it with the usual, purely virtual providers of digital content. Of course, a Spotify or Netflix subscription is also fun, but the interaction is completely different – especially for children.

The 'collector's instinct' that is deeply rooted in us is stimulated by the cards or individually designed figures in a completely different way than it is by a purely virtual, completely unorganised "library" – artificial intelligence or not.

Solutions like this make you almost a little nostalgic when you think of your own record collection from the 80s, which you can probably still identify with: One look at the wall with the 10 favourite records and it was clear where you stood with your musical taste. My prediction: solutions like these will come back!

There is one technical detail to consider: Unlike our vinyl record collections of yesteryear, these novel, physical media twins from 2020 contain no content, only access permissions.

You basically buy a figure or card that contains a play authorisation. The actual content is streamed in the same way as with Spotify and Netflix. The manufacturer has in effect combined the best of both worlds, because the production of the characters can be decoupled from the production of the actual content. If, for example, an additional dubbing in a new language has to be supplied, this can now be done "just in time".

Another important side-effect is that the media players and the collection of media content can be prominently displayed in the children's room. In comparison with purely digital content on an iPad, this of course also means an excellent advertising effect for the manufacturer – with numerous positive side effects:

  1. Parents and children are indicating that they are brand ambassadors for this product.
  2. A new usage and marketing channel directly to the customer is established.
  3. Established intermediaries such as Amazon or the App Store are simply eliminated – or at least pushed back into the second row.
  4. The perception of value clearly moves back to the content and the content provider.
  5. With the help of the physical twin, the profile of a company's own "small is beautiful" media platform is boosted. We are, in effect, building a platform business!

To conclude, here is a fascinating comparison of various "children's boxes":

Example 2: A physical twin for the bank account!

Different business, similar example: the piggy bank. That's right: they're becoming rarer. With the decline in the use of cash together with the fees charged by many banks for cash deposits, they have gone out of fashion. And yet there are still children's savings books - just purely digital. They have the disadvantage that children find it more difficult to understand what is going on, what "saving" actually means. In the past, when people still collected coins in their piggy banks and took them to the bank to be paid in, everything was much more tangible and intuitive.

This dilemma resulted in CreditSuisse coming up with the brilliant idea of the Digipigi – a "digital piggy bank". The piggy bank works as a kind of "physical twin" to the child's bank account. You can still save with coins – or just virtually. Along with the concept come two "companion apps" – one for the child and one for the parents. And we see it here again: physical and virtual experiences are interwoven. This is made possible by the connectivity of the Digipigi with the bank's backend systems. Incidentally, we at Zühlke were closely involved in the development and original implementation of this product idea. Positive user reviews such as these are naturally very gratifying and underline the emotional added value that is obviously being created. 

Example 3: A "virtual housemate" protects you from burglars!

The Swiss start-up Mitipi had come up with a completely different application for "physical twins" with its product "Kevin" (Yes, you guessed it: the product name is inspired by the film classic Home Alone starring the young boy Kevin). We were also privileged to support Mitipi in transforming its ideas into reality. A small device that simulates a virtual resident in order to deter burglars when you are away from home. It does this automatically and also by remote control via a mobile app. For this purpose, Kevin simulates typical lighting circuits in the home and plays sound sequences. Once again, the combination of an easy-to-use product you can touch and an intelligent software solution is the key to success. As you can see, where physical twins are concerned, there are no limits to the imagination.

By the way, the founders' pitch in the Swiss "Lion's Den" gives some exciting insights into the start-up (Note: the soundtrack is Swiss German, which is markedly different from standard German 😃). To me, the coupling of the business model with an optional household insurance policy is exciting – an additional "virtual" product that is made more tangible by this combination:

And – Action for the physical twin!

By this point, I hope that I have been able to provide a stimulus for your own new idea! Shouldn't you also be thinking about a "physical twin" in your organisation; one that supports a new business model and opens up an exclusive customer channel?

Our firm belief:
In times of crisis, we need to implement exactly such ideas to re-enthuse customers.

By now you may be wondering why you should discuss "your physical twin" with Zühlke, of all people. Well, we simply have everything already on board that is needed to conceive and then implement end-to-end a "physical twin", and all in partnership with you.

We see ourselves as a "one-stop shop" for innovations like these:

  1. Starting with a creative workshop to develop and evaluate exciting ideas.
  2. Through conception, building and testing of an experience prototype and using Lean Startup methods to validate the idea on the customer's territory. Does anyone want a product like this? And will someone pay money for it? And if yes, how much?
  3. All the way to the development of a production-ready finished product with attractive manufacturing costs.

We are helped in this by our broad expertise from the last 50 years in the market: beginning with developing the required customer experience, which is greatly helped by innovative customer channels , then considering whether there is a viable business case, to our roots in hardware engineering (mechanics, optics, electronics) and software topics (embedded, cloud, mobile, AI).

Stefan Grasmann
Contact person for Germany

Stefan Grasmann

Group Head of Thought Leadership & Chief of Blockchain

Stefan Grasmann is partner and Group Head of Thought Leadership & Chief of Blockchain at Zühlke. He is responsible for the thought leadership program of Zühlke and is passionate about Blockchain technology and Decentralized Finance (DeFi).

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