Facebook has always tried to incorporate the idea that human beings just want to reach out and touch somebody. (Poke. Poke.) But while at MIT, Melissa Chow, Andy Payne, and Phil Seaton dreamed up a system that would turn connections made over social media into physical contact. They call it the "Like-a-hug."
The inflatable jackets are activated when a Facebook friend "likes" a photo or a message. The jacket encompasses its wearer in an embrace—a simulacrum of a hug, sent over the Internet.
Appliance manufacturers want us to live in a world where the objects around us can speak to us via social media. Plants will alert gardeners when they're thirsty, refrigerators will figure out which food has gone bad, and toasters will remind you that your toast is done. (Actually, I might need that last one.) But Like-a-hug has a different purpose: it's taking virtual interactions that once happened in person and reintroducing a physicality to them.
It reminds me of a short-lived project in the newsroom of Quartz, a new online business magazine. The team there hooked up a light bulb to Twitter, and whenever anyone tweeted at Quartz, the lightbulb went on. "When you interact with us, our newsroom is literally brightened," wrote senior editor Zach Seward. "It's a nice manifestation of our relationship with Quartz users, without whom we'll be in the dark."
These little niceties give a whole new meaning to the concept of a "public display of affection." In a world which Like-a-hug reigns, its creators imagine, "People wear them everywhere. They are always connected. They share their lives where others can see them." And although a hug from a jacket will always lack a certain warmth, I’ve met people in long-distance relationships whom I could imagine enthusiastically adopting the idea. If you're already separated by an ocean from a loved one, a hug from a jacket could be better than nothing.
[Photo: Melissa Kit Chow]
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.
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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.