My fiancée and I keep very different hours. I wake up close to dawn to write, and inevitably fall asleep early after dinner, often in my chair. The inamorata, on the other hand, is a night owl who can usually be found reading until 3am, and often can't be found at all before 10, when she rises to study and work. Because of this, the two of us rarely get to indulge in the blissful pleasure of waking up with one another. Even so, every morning, I know when she wakes up. Because no matter how far away from me she may be, she hugs me through her iPhone. And I hug her through my iPhone right back.
We're both using an app called Avocado, a social network for romantic partners that gives couples the ability to message each other, keep a shared calendar, share photos and videos, tick items off a shared todo list, and more. But we never bother with any of that utilitarian stuff. For us, Avocado is used exclusively for hugging.
Writing that out, it seems tacky. An "app for hugging" seems like the exemplar of everything that's wrong with communication in the 21st century. Yet I insist that, in allowing me to hug and be hugged by the person I adore most, Avocado has tapped into something powerful.
Here's how the hugging function works: Loading up the app and tapping the hug button, Avocado invites you to place your device, screen-first, against your heart. Doing so, the app buzzes, and displays a message saying that you've hugged your significant other. On the other side of the hug, your romantic partner is alerted by Avocado that he or she has received a hug, and is asked whether or not they would like to send a hug back.
The experience is super simple, as is the technology that drives it. "Hugging" someone in Avocado just activates your iPhone or Android smartphone's proximity sensor. (This is the same infrared beam that turns off your screen when you place your phone next to your ear during a call.) If the app detects something close to the screen, Avocado makes your device vibrate.
From a tech standpoint, then, an Avocado hug isn't much more complicated than sending a buzzing text message. But the emotional effect it triggers feels legitimate in a way that receiving a text message does not. It's as if the warmth and presence of your partner has been magically transmitted through the phone. Pressed against your chest, an Avocado hug feels almost like a heartbeat.
Speaking to Co.Design, Avocado co-founder Chris Wetherell tells me that Avocado's hugging feature was mostly a happy accident. "The genesis of hugging in Avocado was almost sitcom-like in its simplicity," remembers Wetherell. "One of our team members said, 'I wish there was a way to just hug your phone.' Then one of our engineers replied, 'Wait a minute, I'll be back in an hour.'" But while the origin of the hugging feature in Avocado is almost comically straightforward, the mechanism itself hacks into all sorts of deep psychological territory that determines the way we feel when we're given physical affection by a person we love.
According to Wetherell, the reason that hugging feels so tangible in the app is because it triggers a psychological process in the brain called "propinquity." Propinquity is that sense of comfort and well-being we feel when we are in close contact with someone whom we love. When we feel stressed, anxious, or lonely, we naturally turn to that person, and try to trigger that feeling of propinquity in our brains by holding hands, hugging, or kissing.
"There aren't many ways that you can interact with a smartphone that feel legitimate enough to trigger these sorts of psychological processes," Wetherell thinks. With the hugging functionality, though, Avocado has managed to tap into one. "It's almost as if you feel the physical presence, the phantom, of the person you love, coming through the phone," he says.
While so many social media apps feel physically distancing, Avocado is unique in that it actually makes two people physically closer to one another, no matter how far apart they are, and simply hugging your iPhone does it all.
That's far from tacky. It's great design.