If the abundance of matchmaking apps–for friends, for dates, for missed connections–signals anything, it’s that meeting people is tough and a lot of people like having a technological buffer between them and the potential awkwardness of rejection. But are we doomed to beginning relationships through the cold glow of a phone screen? Not it four recent Royal College of Art graduates can help it.
Four students from the RCA’s Innovation Design Engineering program–Huishan Ma, María Apud Bell, Lyle Baumgarten, and Jonathan Rankin–created a wearable called Ripple that uses haptic feedback and artificial intelligence to help people flirt.
“Our increased uptake of digital technology has led us to be more immersed in a virtual world,” Ripple’s designers write in the project’s description. “We are less present in real life, making it harder for us to communicate with others face to face. Although we are constantly surrounded by people, we behave as if we were on our own.”
Here’s how Ripple works: The garment, which looks like sea anemone tentacles that have been attached to shoulder pads, is fitted with two cameras that monitor the wearer’s surroundings and use computer vision to process facial expressions and identify attraction. If Ripple senses that someone might be interested in the wearer, it sends a wave of vibrations up its back. This signal is supposed to boost the wearer’s confidence and cue them to look around. If the wearer and the interested person lock eyes, Ripple then produces a tap in the chest area and the tentacles subtly move. Once mutual attraction has been established, it’s up to the people to start a conversation.
This isn’t the first wearable interface designed to promote social connections. Ripple is similar to designer Benhaz Fahri’s Caress of the Gaze, a 3D-printed garment that changes its shape in response to an onlooker’s gaze. The two represent a new wave of wearables that create alternative modes of communication for people with crippling shyness or who are just oblivious to their surroundings. Can a garment spark more meaningful interactions? Possibly. But so can a simple “Hi, my name is . . .” introduction.