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August 24, 2006

The (New) Familiar Stranger


Subtle Connections and the Unknown

Wireless, mobile, digital technologies are rapidly transforming our relationship to people and place in public urban settings. The Familiar Stranger Project developed by Eric Paulos and Elizabeth Goodman from Intel Berkeley Lab, explores these devices implications that provide a loose connection (but no explicit communication) to those nearby whom we do not know - our 'Familiar Strangers'. Familiar strangers are individuals that we regularly observe, particularly in public urban spaces, but do not interact with. A good example is a person seen on the tube every morning: if this person fails to show up we suddenly notice it.

The claim is that the relationship we have with the familiar strangers is indeed a real relationship in which both parties agree to mutually ignore each other. And this familiarity with strangers help us to feel part of a group. However current trends in mobile phone usage increasingly divide people from co-located strangers within their community. In quirky situations or strange places in fact we use our mobile phones uncomfortably, dramatically decreasing the chances of interacting with individuals outside our social groups. The research goal is to use wireless devices to extend the social phenomenon of Familiar Stranger. Paulos and Goodman are not interested in designing a friends' finder, matchmaking device - strangers must remain stranger. Instead, they want to develop mobile devices to explore and play with our subtle connections to strangers and the unknown.

One of these prototypes is the Jabberwocky, a freely available mobile phone application that takes advantage of current Bluetooth device proliferation. Users of the Jabberwocky are able to visualize current and historical Familiar Strangers and places using collections of Bluetooth addresses. Importantly, other users do not need to use the application: the tool is entirely capable of detecting other Bluetooth mobile phone users. One of the most powerful elements of Jabberwocky is that it is not driven by the bits of an online network, but by actual real-life, by the movement and interaction (or non-interaction) of others who's path we cross. Therefore, the number of 'participants' is not simply the size of some database on a central server but a more powerful and personal membership in urban life. To be specific, every Bluetooth mobile phone user is within the Jabberwocky community. As Lewis Carrol would have written, "Beware the Jabberwock(y), my son!". Valentina Culatti, Neural.

Posted by jo at August 24, 2006 11:50 AM