A design project that connects family members via a 3D display indicating when relatives are ‘home’ – and what weather they are experiencing – is helping HP Labs better understand how technology can bring people together.
The concept, called Project Jetty, is elegantly simple: place a 3D-printed, realistic representation of your home in the home of an adult relative and keep a representation of their home in yours. Each printed house glows when its owner is home and sits in a photo frame illuminated by a tablet device, enabling the display of real time weather data.
Thanks in large part to that simplicity, the devices can have a powerful impact says Alex Thayer, PhD, project director and senior manager in HP’s Immersive Experiences Lab.
“You might think you could foster even stronger connections through something like a live video feed, but while pictures are highly emotional, their power can also inhibit people from wanting to initiate contact,” Thayer says. “In this project we’ve found that knowing whether someone is home, or what the weather is like at the relative’s house, is actually a great point of entry into a conversation, which is one of the things we were hoping to encourage.”
The idea for Project Jetty sprang from an HP Labs design workshop where Thayer’s colleague, Ji Won Jun asked, “How can we help people feel connected without actually being connected?” In response, Thayer recalled a comment from his young daughter: “I wish I could be at Grandma’s house even when I’m not there.”
That inspired team member Hiroshi Horii to create a mocked-up prototype on the spot, featuring a small, 3D house with real-time weather information projected onto it. They hit on the name Project Jetty because a jetty is anchored in one place (the land) but extends out into another (a lake or ocean), and acts as a launching or landing point for travel between the two.
The idea was promising enough for the lab to quickly launch a “design probe” – a working instantiation of the concept that could be tested in the field.“In an eight week sprint our small team of engineers moved from brainstorming the idea to having the devices in use by five pairs of families,” Thayer recalls. Each pair lived within driving distance of each other but had expressed a desire to be in contact more often. They used the devices for just over a week and noted how the connection changed their behavior.
All the family pairings reported having more conversations via phone or text with each other than before, says Thayer. They also felt more connected and even used the device to see when family members had left their houses to come over to visit. One aging user noted that seeing her adult child’s house lit up helped remind her she was due to babysit, keeping her “mind organized” and making her feel better able to help care for her grandchildren.
“Everyone wanted to keep their devices at the end of the field test,” Thayer adds. “That gave us a pretty clear sense that the experience was one people really valued.”
Lab researchers aren’t necessarily looking to develop a new HP product as a result of the experiment. Instead, says Thayer, their intention was to extend their understanding of how technology can help us live better and feel more resilient in our lives.
In particular, the project has helped elucidate how technology can help people form more successful emotional connections. Using a glowing house to signal presence, for example, turned out to have more evocative power than something that was more “high tech” but also more abstract.
“We can use those insights in a wide variety of future projects,” Thayer notes.