Getting someone’s undivided attention has become a rare luxury, unfortunately. Phones are present at the dinner table, while colleagues tap at laptops during meetings. It seems wherever digital technology exists, it holds the potential to hijack attention, diverting focus away from what matters. Even technology created to enhance specific experiences can serve to distract and interrupt exactly what is was designed to improve.
This thought stuck with me as our team worked with real estate developer World-Wide Group (WWG) to create digital tools for the demo unit of their high-end luxury apartment building in Midtown East. At first, using technology to help sellers communicate the features and feel of their apartments with buyers seemed like a contradiction. Though many new high-end luxury apartment buildings in New York City are implementing cutting edge display technology in their sales spaces, their reliance on digital technology can have the unintended effect of diverting the seller’s attention away from the buyer, creating an undesirable break, while trying to build an interpersonal relationship. Additionally, having too much visible gadgetry can make a apartment unit feel less like a home, and more like a technology demo, preventing the buyer from imagining their life as it would be lived in the space. The technology often employed in similar sales scenarios requires time and focus to wield, and while it sometimes integrates impressive tools, it’s hard not to question whether or not it actually boosts sales or improves buyers’ experiences. In a recent New York Times article, “Selling Condos with a Tap and a Swipe,” author Robin Finn describes one of these tech-bedecked sales spaces as being “dominated by a technological tool known simply as the Table, which resembles an 84-inch iPad on steroids.” This was exactly the impact we didn’t want to have. From this, came the exciting challenge for our project: How do we use technology to help form human connections instead of impede them?
One basic solution could have been to have an iPad that would control content on digital screens or a large touch table or display. However, having as much content as WWG had to navigate would become distracting for the seller. When acting out this interaction, we saw that it created disconnection in the same way an engaging conversation with a friends is killed when they take out their phone. This disruptive action was not going to engender the comfort and warmth sellers want their buyers to experience.
Reflecting on the advantages and disadvantages of both digital and physical solutions, and how each of these tools would impact a seller’s ability to connect with buyers and communicate a feeling of home, we landed on solution that was a blend of the two: a system that combines the warm familiarity of physical objects with the the wealth of potential uses offered by digital displays.
Our solution embedded technology where it naturally existed in the apartments.
By making the technology disappear, we preserved the space’s primary value, as a place potential buyers could envision as their future home. Our only evident technology was visible in the television screens installed where a homeowner would have them– one in front of the couch in the living room and one in front of a couch in the den. We then created the system to control the content on those screens in the form of letter pressed paper cards that have RFID tags hidden within them (RFID is the same technology used in tapable key cards often used in office buildings, hotels or transit cards) and small custom made boxes with RFID readers within them that fit seamlessly with the other items on the coffee tables. These cards and readers were strategically placed throughout the demo apartment, so that a seller could trigger content and experiences when appropriate, helping the sellers explain the building and the space while not distracting from it. For example, when a sales associate walking a buyer through the space wants to provide details about a specific unit, they can simply place one of the letter pressed paper cards on top of custom made RFID reader box, in one singular motion, and the floor plan for that specific unit will be displayed on the television.
This same card system is used to trigger many interactions throughout the space. In a separate sales room, a seller can place a paper card representing any of the available units onto a reader and the closest television screen will display the floor plan and high-definition photographs of the unit’s views, dim the lights in the room, and rotate a 12 foot tall model of the building to display the side of the building that the unit will be on, and illuminate the specific unit from within, allowing the buyer to visualize the space they are interested in buying, all without ever using a touch screen.
In this highly competitive sales space with apartments selling from $5-$50 million dollars, getting this interaction right can make a big difference in sealing a deal. The problem World Wide Group asked us to solve is not unique to the real estate sphere. Technology has been embraced so enthusiastically, its advances celebrated so widely, that few pause to question whether the solutions being implemented aren’t just cool, but are truly achieving our end goals. By embedding technology through spaces and limiting its visibility to where it’s natural and beneficial, we harness the tremendous power it affords, while ensuring focus stays on human connections, and on completing sales.