Digital technology can be romantic as well as practical

Posted by Chris Nova

Artists and engineers have joined forces to show that digital technology can be both romantic and practical.

There aren’t many people who give consideration to a text message, no matter how heartfelt it is. They aren’t looked at in the same way as handwritten declaration of love. A Newcastle University team is trying to prove that using digital communication doesn’t always mean that romance is dead.
    
And why not, surely the worlds still read the same on a digital medium.
    
They have made digital “Lovers Boxes” that use the aesthetics of traditional wooden jewelry boxes, but they actually contain the newest technology to allow couples to record romantic messages for each other. Digital “Lovers Boxes” to prove that romance isn’t always dead, that’s funny.
    
The team’s research is featured in the May 2011 edition of the International Journal of Human-Computer Studies. The first boxes they designed for couples to test are made from four different woods (cherry, beech, apple and walnut).
    
Each box has two halves connected by brass hinges, decorated with fancy carvings, and an antique keyhole on the front.
    
A computer with an incorporated RFID reader is concealed inside the box. Other than the screen itself, all visible evidence of digital technology is hidden from view.
    
When it’s unlocked, the box opens like a book, and a screen becomes visible. A wooden ornamental mat with rounded edges frames the screen to counter the usual expectations of a digital display.  
    
When put in the box, the RFID tag in the key chain activates a video message stored within. To prevent the box from looking like a wooden laptop, the videos made by participants are not displayed in a typical 16:9 landscape format on the screen, but in a portrait orientation.
    
“The aesthetic appeal of these objects, with the mix of the antique wooden box that has to be unlocked with a physical key is really important in terms of keeping the personal messages between partners private and treasured,” said Anja Thieme, the lead researcher on the project.
    
The Lovers’ Box (he he) has been described as “an interactive storybook or jewelry box”, which the participants chose to treat carefully and store like a priceless family heirloom. This separates it from more traditional and digital media such as mobile phones or laptops.
    
The five couples in the Newcastle University study were able to create videos for each other by working with a digital media artist. Video was chosen by the research team as the media format for the study because it allows the scope and flexibility to present text and pictures, as well as moving pictures and sound.
    
They could personalize their messages further by arranging the time, window and dates at which the message would play, and the amount of times it could be played. They could set it so the video message could be played just once, on a specific day.
    
The research findings revealed that the creation, exchange and display of personal messages within the box acted as both mirrors and sources for reflection on their relationships.
    
Research subjects viewed their box as a memento or digital storybook of their significant experiences, and felt that the exchange was an enjoyable shared hobby with their partner. The video content was also regarded as a snapshot into their minds and thoughts.   
    
"The process of reflecting on what content to present, of putting effort into the creation of the video and handing the box over to their beloved was perceived as giving a gift of high personal significance. In this sense, the interaction with the box created space for partners to display mutual social and emotional support and to feel valued and loved," explained Thieme.
   
"This project builds on a strand of research developed in the Digital Interaction group at Culture Lab in recent years into ways of making emotionally meaningful forms of digital technologies. The Lovers’ Boxes clearly illustrate the potential for a new ‘breed’ of digital artifacts which have the potential to enrich our personal and emotional lives."