hdphnjkHow do you replicate an engrained behavioral pattern in the mobile digital environment? Is it through that collection (agglomeration? portfolio? mess?) of apps? Maybe it’s time to think outside the 4.87″ x 2.31″ x .3″ box and get to know the real MVP of your mobile device: The headphone jack.

Bringing both the delights and chores of the outside world into the mobile digital environment means making a connection between people and software. Making this connection is typically handled through the screen: data comes in requesting action, the user pokes and swipes the user interface to create a response, and data goes back out to be acted upon. This is fine, but then the user is limited in what he/she can do by the native capabilities of the device.

The way to realize true tricorder-esque potential of your mobile device is through hardware add-ons: small tools and sensors that plug into the gizmo to deliver some additional input and output. All mobile devices have a data connection input, which is usually located at the bottom of the unit. This placement makes in-action use inconvenient, not to mention that the jack and cannot be accessed while the unit it docked or plugged in to get juice. Plus, Apple’s data interface is decidedly distinct from most of the rest of the mobile world’s. But there is an unexpected input/output hero to the rescue: the headphone jack.

imagesSmartphones, tablets, and many laptops have long since embraced an integrated set-up that allows a simultaneous microphone and headphone connection through a single 1/8″ plug. Chances are very good that the plug-in thingy at the end of your smartphone-supplied earbuds is one of these things known as a “standard 4 pole audio jack.” But these jacks go far beyond handling audio. And that’s where things can get really interesting.

For years, engineers have been messing around with the headphone jacks of various mobile devices to use their in/out capabilities and low-power supply capabilities to power sensors or various types. The most prominent is Square, but others include the Thermodo and the Lumu. To some engineering students at the University of Michigan the hidden capabilities of the headphone jack has “hack me” written all over it, and so Project HiJack was born. From this project everything from a soil moisture tester to an EKG monitor has been prototyped.

Why Should Brands Care?
Linking the user to the software solely through the screen means the user’s experience is tightly governed by the operating system of the device it runs on. The user will use “your” app but the contact with your brand will be, by definition, diluted, because your app leverages standard interfaces of the device’s operating system. Thus your brand experience may well be mixed a little too much in with that of Samsung or HTC or Apple.

Mating a plug-in dongle with an app offers 4 distinct benefits:

  1. The brand owns a little more of the user experience since part of it is external to the mobile device itself.
  2. The functionality of the device is extended beyond what the manufacturer can or wants to offer.
  3. There is up-selling / cross-selling potential with a piece of hardware.
  4. The brand can “billboard” by using real estate on the dongle to reinforce brand recognition; your phone becomes a “Square” phone when the Square plug-in is in use.

It can be argued that having to plug something in is a weakness: Things you have to plug in can become lost or broken. Wouldn’t it be great if the user didn’t have to plug anything in, and the system worked seamlessly, silently in the background? Sure. But life rarely catches up to our imaginations. So let your imagination run free and see if a little hardware is what’s needed to make that connection between the physical and virtual worlds.