Sporting Puma sneakers and a downtown hipster haircut or two, a team from the design firm Imagination USA shuffles into a fourth-floor loft in New York's SoHo district. They're met by David Polinchock, who offers Blow Pops and ushers them into a big space punctuated with inspirational quotes on the walls. ("Nothing is real until it is experienced — John Keats.")
This is the Brand Experience Lab. And though Polinchock's shtick reeks of dotcom-era fluff, there's actually something serious going on. An adjunct professor at Carnegie Mellon University's Entertainment Technology Center, Polinchock is an articulate (if hypergarrulous) thinker about the role technology plays in shaping brand experiences. "Technology allows you much greater flexibility in how you can tell the story," he says. "When it's done well, it allows you to be instantly adaptive. It allows your story to be remembered."
Part marketer's playground and part prototype clearinghouse, the lab brings together emerging technologies from small companies and half a dozen universities. Polinchock helps clients imagine how the technology might be applied without miring them in geeky arcana. His lab is attracting some big-name traffic — folks from Procter & Gamble, Saatchi & Saatchi, and Ogilvy & Mather have dropped in. "They are great translators of technology," says Ivy Ross, Old Navy's executive vice president of product design and development.
Today, Polinchock demonstrates something called the Audio Spotlight, a large black disk developed at MIT's Media Lab that transmits a narrow beam of sound inaudible just two seats away. He effuses over potential applications like broadcasting promotions to specific supermarket shoppers. The visitors from Imagination are skeptical, until Polinchock suggests a use in the Samsung Experience space they just designed. What if an exhibit in the store used Audio Spotlights to tell visitors more information about the designer's work?
Other technologies at the lab might trigger similar "aha" moments. One prototype from Carnegie Mellon allows viewers to virtually control the motion of digital objects projected onto a screen. Polinchock envisions an interactive ad that lets theatergoers play a virtual game of volleyball before the feature film starts. But the bigger point is to get people thinking about technology in terms of its narrative power. Technology enables interactivity — and that, says Polinchock, can help tell a brand's story.
A version of this article appeared in the January 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.