[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Monday, 13 September, 2004, 11:43 GMT 12:43 UK
The future of affection
Dot.life - where technology meets life, every Monday
By Mark Ward
BBC News Online technology correspondent

Couple embracing, Corbis
Technology can help you stay close
The shiny, wipe-clean future we are headed for may seem like a cold and uninviting place, but if existing technology is any guide then feelings and emotions are going to play a big part in this hi-tech world.

For a start the mobile phone has become popular only because it is so personal.

In the past when handsets were fixed to desks at work or in the hall at home everything said on the phone was semi-public.

"Now it's about personal communication," says James Stewart, a senior research fellow at The Institute for Studies of Science, Technology and Innovation at the University of Edinburgh.

Public is private

"When you don't know where people are it becomes much more private."

Having a mobile means loved ones can reach you at any time. Text messages in particular are a way to regularly reach out to family and friends.

Often just the fact we are getting in touch is more important than what we communicate, says Prof Stewart.

Pensive woman, Eyewire
He could be thinking of you too...
Equally people try to invest the technology with some more emotion, using smileys, abbreviations and phrases that have special meanings for the people communicating, he adds.

It is a good way for a group - be it a family or a group of friends - to keep themselves defined and celebrate their connection to each other.

And mobile phones look like being just the start. Numerous projects are working on ways to let us communicate more than just words and our voice with the people we know and love.

For instance US artist Alison Lewis has developed some hi-tech mood rings that are wirelessly interconnected.

Squeezing one of the "Think of Me" rings makes the other heat up, giving people a way to let a partner know when they are thinking of them.


Similarly researchers at the Play Studio of Sweden's Interactive Institute have developed interconnected pillows that let people who are far apart maintain a link with each other.

Woven into the pillows are electroluminescent fibres. When one pillow is hugged or squeezed, its partner pillow lights up.

"We wanted to see how technology can be used to communicate something other than just information," says Margot Jacobs, an interaction design researcher at the Play Studio.

Stressed man, BBC
Bad day? No problem...
"We wanted to try to get the emotional content into it somehow."

What is important to these projects, and any other that helps people communicate how they feel about each other, is control says Ms Jacobs.

Without the ability to decide when and what you want to communicate the opportunity to show how you feel using technology can become oppressive, she says.

"You always have to be able to turn it off," she says.

Dr Stewart from the University of Edinburgh, says using technology can help people find out what they like.


"Learning how to use a technology to be who you are can make people reflect on how they like to be," he says.

But the last thing technology should do is turn love and affection into a statistical game, says Prof Rosalind Picard, director of the Affective Computing Group at the MIT Media Lab.

Prof Picard says a former MIT students called Angela Chang worked on a smart photo frame, called Lumi-Touch that noticed when a person looked at it and made a corresponding frame light up.

A husband and wife using it to see when their spouse glances at their image could get paranoid about the way their partner feels if the number of glances drops off significantly over a period of days.

Dr Picard is also working on ways to make machines notice how we are feeling and thinks the trend toward making computers more cognisant of how humans feel is inevitable.

"In some cases they are extremely powerful and in others invasive and we are not going to want them," she says.

Smarter systems at work could notice when people are stressed and have a lot to do and manage the amount of interruptions they get via e-mails or phone to let them get on with their work.

Another system could spot whether customers ringing a call centre are angry to ensure the difficult calls are spread among staff rather than just routed to one person.

Who knows, one day your phone could be calling your friends on your behalf, telling them to line up the drinks at the bar because you've had such a bad day.

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East | South Asia
UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health
Have Your Say | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific