Hidden Senses Concept

Maximum comfort: Exploring
“new everyday living”
through intuitive interactions

Sony Design weaves products and spaces around stories, narratives that infuse the user experience with a unique emotional energy. Through the “Hidden Senses” design concept, the project members want to embed technology deep within those stories — and find ways to forge closer bonds with people’s lives. How did that idea take shape? The genesis of the project was ideas initiative by designers with an eye to coexistence: exploring how people would interact with the technology inhabiting the lifestyles of tomorrow.

What comfort
will feel like

In today’s “living” sphere, trends are following the “smart home” concept — an approach that leverages smartphones, computers, and an array of other Internet-of-Things (IoT) hardware to optimize living conditions. Showcases of cutting-edge smart-home systems, besides featuring the technology at the heart of the whole concept, also foreground the element of visibility. Displays fill the living spaces, showing up-to-the-minute data on everything from the weather to power consumption. Information is virtually everywhere you look. While that access has its benefits, Sony designers saw all that information and started to wonder. Would it really be comfortable to live in a smart home? Could you really feel at home in a smart home? Might the technology get in the way of what people have always treasured in their homes — a place to spend time with family, find some peace of mind, and just be? Sony designers knew there had to be a way to balance things out and allow people to coexist with all that information and technology. Instead of putting a tablet in a wall to display information as a fixture occupying the space, maybe smart homes could integrate information into the items people use; maybe they could blend into the manners that define everyday living for a more discreet, comfortable mode of interaction. It was an innovative take on the concept, and designers decided to run with it. In 2014, a group of designers got together and set to work on what would become the Hidden Senses project.

Breaking away from the
“spec doctrine”

When it comes to appliances and devices, people tend to obsess over specs — but hardware performance isn’t the be-all and end-all of technology. We always wanted users to feel technology from a broader perspective, as something to experience, something with emotional value. As we got deeper into the Hidden Senses project, we started talking about what information and technology really are. To us, they’re not just static things to manipulate — our vision orients information and technology as companions, supportive cohabitants of a fuller life for the future.

Tako, chief art director

Fleshing out the concept
through constant experimentation

To help information and technology blend smoothly into people’s lives, the designers focused on enhancing the comfort of user-technology interactions. They wanted to integrate technology into the things people do on a regular, ordinary basis, of course, but they also wanted the process of using the technology to create comfortable interactions and awaken sensations that tend to lie “hidden” under the façade of everyday life. The outlook was ambitious, and the team knew that it would have to pool all its resources. Doing away with the traditional barriers separating design specializations, the team brought everyone together around a central question: what makes interactions comfortable? That got the ball rolling; designers tossed out ideas from every angle, created an array of working prototypes, and validated the results on an ongoing basis. Whenever an experiment clicked — be it through a new sensation or by opening doors to a different type of enjoyment — the team would follow that spark of discovery and try to shape a compelling interaction around it. As those new interactions started to come to the fore, the concept started to jell.

User-technology interactions have traditionally taken place on-screen, but the designers started to question that standard approach. What if the screen was just a constraint? What if we tried to blend user interfaces into spaces and objects in people’s surroundings — not screens — and embed interactions in everyday life itself? A rush of creativity followed. The team was soon playing with a host of ideas — using projections of sunlight on a table to show weather information, for example, or turning a cup into a TV volume knob — that erased the boundaries between the digital and the physical to unlock intuitive interactions.

Photo of sticky notes on the wall reflecting text written with a smartphone
Photo of the projection of sunlight on a table showing weather information
Photo of a cup turned into a TV volume knob
Photo of the dish projected on a plate placed next to a menu
Everything can be an interface

We decided to think of every imaginable boundary between people and things as a potential interface. That really broadened our perspective on what interactions are all about, opening our eyes to how people connect to different objects and their peripheral settings.

Oki, design technologist (Left)

From the prototype to the drawing board and back again

In building a UI design, we normally develop a hypothesis or concept first and then implement the design from there. The Hidden Senses project was different; we started right off with the experimentation stage. We kind of worked backward. If the prototype didn’t open up a design for a new interaction or an innovative experience, we’d go back to the drawing board and try a new conceptual angle. The experiments ended up shaping the concept, not the other way around.

Nakajima, designer (Right)

Back to square one:
Crafting extraordinary experience
value out of
sensory elements

In trying to maximize the comfort of every interaction, the team adopted a dual focus. Optimal convenience was one key element, of course, but so was the idea of creating experiential value capable of further enriching everyday life. That led to the idea of designing interactions that could spark new sensations — not just enable new manipulations. To do that, the team decided to tap two different layers of experience: the immediate experience of actually interacting with the technology and the past, familiar experiences that populate people’s memories. Working along those lines, the designers came up with a new take on a simple tray. The team wanted interacting with the tray to generate a mixture of the new and the familiar, so they created an innovative tray that would respond to a tilt by producing vibrations and sounds to simulate something like coffee beans sliding around on the surface. The Hidden Senses concept, true to its name, started to develop with imaginative interactions full of unique sensory experiences under the surface. The team also designed products with familiar forms and textures to prompt natural, intuitive interactions, all in hopes of putting the experience front and center.

Photo of the Swing Light, which acts as a window into sceneries elsewhere
Photo of the Tactile Bench, which makes a visitor feel like there is water inside it
Grounding interactions in reality

For our Hidden Senses product designs, we decided to give the forms a bit of an unsteady, unorthodox feel to make users more conscious of what they’re actually operating. The same went for the textures — we wanted the tactile dimension to invoke memories of familiar sensations. By linking the experience of using the product with experiences in people’s memory banks, we tried to inject a bit of wonder and a dose of realism into the designs.

Shiono, art director

Hidden Senses in
contexts of all kinds

The Hidden Senses project team showcased some of its prototypes at Milan Design Week 2018, one of the world’s largest design-oriented events, to glean a mix of feedback on the concept from an outside audience. Laying out the key conceptual elements in a simple, straightforward way to help usher first-timers into the experience, the exhibit comprised five case studies for the five senses. The process embodied Sony’s commitment to telling stories; the initial case study, which focused on hearing, led into one for sight, and the booth proceeded to highlight the other three “hidden senses” in a sequential fashion. With that approach, the exhibit gradually guided visitors through an encounter with “new everyday living” amid an array of technology. The response was exactly what the team was hoping for, with attendees calling the showcase a “slice of life in the future” and world-renowned architect Patricia Urquiola lauding the design. Urquiola was so impressed, in fact, that she asked Sony Design to help her with a 100th-anniversary retrospective of Italian industrial designer Achille Castiglioni — a luminary in the field — that she was curating. Jumping at the opportunity, the team created an installation that fused pieces of Castiglioni’s oeuvre with the Hidden Senses concept.

(top): Milan Design Week 2018,
(left): A Castiglioni exhibition at Milan, (right): an/other TOKYO - hotel in Tokyo

From the art world to the service segment and the technology realm, the Hidden Senses concept is turning heads all over the spectrum and making its way into more and more fields. The accommodations industry is one example: an/other TOKYO, a cutting-edge hotel, incorporated Hidden Senses to transform its reception area. On the technological side, meanwhile, Sony showcased its unique concept to rapt audiences at the 2019 IEEE World Haptics Conference — one of the biggest international conventions in the haptics field. At the core of the Hidden Senses concept are the elements of versatility and adaptability, the potential to draw on existing content from any given field to create transformative experiences within the corresponding context. Sony Design, setting its sights on maximizing the comfort of future lifestyles, is excited to keep exploring the possibilities of blending the digital and the physical into incredible new experiences.

The Hidden Senses concept puts technology in a new light:
not as something that stands out, but rather an element that blends into spaces,
a responsive accompaniment to people’s everyday lives.
The design team will keep on probing the idea of “new everyday living”
in hopes of arousing hidden emotional sensations.