Hybrid Gifts

Lead Research Organisation: University of Nottingham
Department Name: School of Computer Science


The exchange of gifts has a long tradition and has been widely recognised as socially important, building bonds and promoting wellbeing. It also brings economic benefits to manufacturers and retailers by driving the sales of products, with the global gifting market predicted to exceed £30 billion by 2021. Digital gifting, giving media (such as music, video, images, games and subscription accounts) as a gift in a digital format online is still in its infancy, but is a rapidly growing sector of the market. Digital gifts, however, fail to be appreciated as gifts as much as their physical counterparts by their recipients, and as such are easily forgotten, and rarely reflected on or reciprocated.

Companies are embracing opportunities to provide additional value to tangible products through supporting services, in particular by connecting physical goods to digital services to support customisation or personalisation. For example, physical products are enhanced by augmented reality content overlaid onto them when they are scanned using mobile phones. Researchers have explored how the value of these products has been enhanced through the digital, for example giving second hand goods or musical instruments the ability to tell stories about their past usage.

In this project, rather than treating physical and digital gifting separately, we will explore how these new kinds of hybrid products can flexibly support powerful and engaging new gifting experiences. To achieve this, we will engage in two phases of work. Firstly, we will explore different mechanism for combining the physical and digital into hybrid artefacts, and chart the opportunities for customisation to create meaningful personalised gifts. This spans immersive augmented reality applications to run on a mobile phone to Internet-of-Things technologies embedded in new physical objects. By working 'in the wild' with real users, we will refine our designs to derive principles and guidelines to understand how the physical and digital facets of a thing can be combined and customised to add value to one another. Secondly, we will explore how to facilitate the creation and sharing of hybrid gifts with various stakeholders over their lifetime. To do this we will scaffold: producers to make hybrid artefacts; retailers to initially configure them; givers to make and personalise these as gifts for others, give them and follow them afterwards; and for their recipients to unwrap them, enjoy them, reciprocate and ultimately pull them from obsolescence by re-gifting, recycling or repurposing.

This project brings together expertise in Human Computer Interaction and Pervasive Computing from researchers at Nottingham's Mixed Reality Laboratory with design researchers at the Loughborough Design School. Our work aims to create opportunities for UK companies to innovate new products and services in the global marketplace. Through collaboration with our industrial partners we will explore how a range of different types of product might become hybrid gifts: fast-moving-consumer-goods such as bath product gift sets that could be coupled to a music track to create a multisensory experience; hand-crafted high-value artisan products such as jewellery that are enriched with stories about how a piece was made, reflections on why it was chosen by the giver and images of it in use by the receiver; and luxury food gifts such as chocolate that include information about the ingredients but also a personal message from the giver to create an enhanced unwrapping experience. We will create, give, enable, sell and study these new products to understand their use and value, and generate a gifting toolkit to support this process for use by the community.

Planned Impact

We envisage impact on various markets for future hybrid gift products that could apply our techniques to deliver added value products and experiences to consumers. We will engage in discussions (co-design sessions) with our partner Unilever to explore how fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) (from different brands owned by Unilever) could be coupled with digital layers to create personalized gifts. We will also seek to impact on the hand crafted and artisan product sector (represented by our partners Debbie Bryan and Studio Chocolate), which is typified by SMEs and micro-companies. As well as engaging in co-design sessions with these partners, we will grow a community of early adopters of our app and tools, supporting them with advice and a community website that showcases examples of prototype products to illustrate what can be achieved with our techniques. We will drive the formation of this community by a social media campaign as well as by attendance at key events such as London Design Week and, where possible, by providing ongoing support for any creative who whishes to deliver exemplar projects.

We also foresee long-term impact on companies, who are developing IoT and AR technologies, by opening up a novel application domain. We will deliver this impact through (i) demonstrating various ways in which associating physical products with digital layers can enhance their value (including supporting claims to provenance; extending utility through embedded instructions and guidelines that can be accessed in context; and enriching personal meaning by associating products with personal memories and stories) and (ii) establishing a general framework (with a reference implementation) to help design how products are mapped to digital layers and how such mappings evolve and are managed as these products pass among different stakeholders, from their original manufacturers, through retailers, to gift givers and receivers.

We will engage the wider public as potential consumers through direct engagement with prototype hybrid gift products. Initially these will be available through workshops at our partner venues (Debbie Bryan and Studio Chocolate), but in later stages of the project they will become directly available as products that can be purchased and taken away by consumers.

Finally, we will engage all partners and other potential commercial beneficiaries in an impact workshop to explore future routes to impact beyond the lifetime of the project.


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Koleva B (2020) Designing Hybrid Gifts in ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction