A Vibro-tactile “Friend Sense” for Keeping Groups Together

Being able to sense the location of people can be beneficial if you visit a crowded, noisy, and chaotic place with your friends, such as a festival. Usually, for a good nightly experience, it is important that the group stays together. However, when everyone has different needs at different times (getting food, visiting the lavatory …) it becomes increasingly challenging to keep everyone together, which is contradictory to a joyful night out.

Thanks to GPS and mobile Internet, different solutions exist where the mobile phone of each friend communicates its GPS location to a server, which then forwards the location to all the other friends’ mobile devices. The problem with existing implementations, such as Google Latitude or Glympse, is that they use maps to communicate these locations. It is more than just inconvenient to read a map while walking through a dense crowd.

We therefore investigated whether the skin can be used to communicate the location of people and therefore be turned into a “friend sense”. Our solution is quite simple, as we wanted to implement it on everyday smartphones. The user can select to “follow” one of the friends. The application then calculates the relative location of this friend, such as “left-hand side”. This information is then encoded into vibration patterns. By learning the meaning of the patterns, the user can understand where the friend is without even taking the device out of the pocket.

We tested this concept on a festival with two groups à 6 friends each. Three of each group could sense the others while three only shared their locations. Over the night we repeatedly probed the participant’s mood and the subjective level of attention they devoted to keeping the group together. In both cases, we could find statistically significant differences between users and non-users of the “friend sense”. The friends that were able to sense the other were more relaxed, felt more confident, and subjectively devoted less attention to keep the group together.

More details on FriendSense and this study can be found in A Tactile Friend Sense for Keeping Groups Together, a work-in-progress to be published as part of the extended abstract of the CHI ’11 conference.

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