Literature Review/Making Sense ✶

Sweet Dreams Are Made of This 2020, Session 08

Zoë Elizabeth Urand
13 min readNov 9, 2020

I can remember exactly when my obsession with phatic technologies began. We were only a few weeks into our IAD Methods class in the second semester and the topic for that week was Design in the Everyday Context. The paper was “Ritual Machines I & II: Making Technology at Home,” which looked at Open Lab’s design process in the making of five bespoke machines for families with mobile workers; these machines were intended to support the families and help them stay connected and engaged despite separation.

Immediately I found myself fascinated by what I would later come to understand as phatic technologies. I had never encountered the non-verbal, unspoken side of communication technology before. As a Canadian expat living in Switzerland, I am separated from friends, family, and familiarity by 8300km and 9 hours. This physical distance and time difference are gaps that most current communication technologies struggle to bridge. For this reason, phatic technologies hit close to home, because I see them as an opportunity and springboard to rethink and reimagine the ways we communicate digitally.

When I began my research into the field of phatic technologies and remote communication I began to realize how this topic has become more relevant than ever. The pandemic and its social distancing regulations have brought about a renewed interest in improving remote communication, not only for those who work and study from home, but for those who cannot visit their loved ones. For this reason, recent research focuses both on collaboration and the exchange of information, as well as maintaining a social and emotional connection.

In general, the field of phatic technologies and remote communication has shown a richness of possibilities, from connecting smart devices in homes to tactile wearables. One area that I have been unable to find much research in, however, is phatic communication through Augmented Reality (AR).


The Haunted House: Networking Smart Homes to Enable Casual Long-Distance Social Interactions (Clark & Dutta, 2015)

Despite technological advancements resulting in increasingly better communication across long distances, little work has been done to explore how networked smart homes can contribute to more subtle, casual exchanges between people. Clark and Dutta propose ghosting—the networking of smart homes in order to create socially connected homes.

Points of Interest

  • Desire to synchronize and share space
  • Ambient and incidental exchanges

SynchroMate: A Phatic Technology for Mediating Intimacy (Gibbs, Vetere, Bunyan, & Howard, 2005)

The majority of interactive technologies have focused primarily on the exchange of information. As an alternative, Gibbs et al. suggest phatic technologies—technologies which establish and maintain social connection. In other words, the focus is not on the substance of what is being communicated, but rather the act or process itself. SynchroMate is an example of a phatic technology, developed as a direct result of their fieldwork and research, which “mediate[s] intimacy by affording serendipitous synchronous exchanges” (Gibbs et al., 2005, p. 2).

Points of Interest

  • Suggested properties for technologies designed to mediate intimacy
  • Encouragement of serendipitous synchronous interaction

Ritual Machines I & II: Making Technology at Home (Kirk, Chatting, Yurman, & Bichard, 2016)

As work-related travel becomes increasingly commonplace, so too does the struggle to maintain some semblance of a family life. Kirk et al. look to phatic technologies as a possible way to help mobile workers remain connected and engaged in family life. Though this paper only discusses Ritual Machines I & II, machines for five families were made.

The consideration of rituals as a symbolic form of communication, specifically how they helped shape the bespoke machines created for each family, really caught my eye. What exactly are the unspoken interactions that help to sustain social bonds? What is missed when we are not together?

Points of Interest

  • Bespoke phatic technologies
  • Design interventions and material explorations as a form of inquiry
  • Conversation starter, not a solution to separation

Augmenting Interpersonal Communication through Connected Lighting (Morris, Carmean, Minyaylov, & Ceze, 2017)

Automation and efficiency. This is what today’s connected devices strive for. But what if our connected devices could communicate? This is where the WeLight system comes in. This system uses smart lighting (i.e. Philips Hue lights) in households as a way to set the scene and communicate affection and emotion between individuals.

What struck me as most interesting were the use scenarios explored by the technology consumers and practitioners, such as location sharing by assigning colours to geographical zones, or the recreation of a shared moment or memory through colour. These scenarios demonstrated the hack-ability of communication, and how we can tailor it to suit our needs and remain connected with others as we see fit.

Point of Interest

  • Shift focus from automation and efficiency between connected devices to communication

Lover’s Cups: Drinking Interfaces as New Communication Channels (Chung, Lee, & Selker, 2006)

Social activities present yet another opportunity for communication between physically distanced individuals. Using wirelessly connected cups as interfaces for communication, Chung et al. explore how drinking together while apart can help to maintain and strengthen social bonds.

An important observation made by Chung et al. is how human communication takes place within certain social contexts. Friends chatting over a few beers or acquaintances speaking to one another in passing are examples of this.

Points of Interest

  • Influence of context and its associated activities on communication
  • Communication through more sensual, tactile actions

Material Food Probe: Personalized 3D Printed Flavors for Emotional Communication in Intimate Relationships (Gayler, Sas, & Kalnikaitė, 2020)

Inspired by design probes, Gayler et al. developed a novel material food probe to explore and enhance emotional communication in intimate relationships. This design method asks couples to 3D print flavours—both from remembered flavour experiences, as well as new ones—which express and regulate emotions.

Although the study focuses on supporting collocated intimacy, rather than connectedness in remote relationships, the use of food and flavour as an interface intrigued me; it seemed so simple and human. Technology might not always be the answer.

Point of Interest

  • Food as a material resource for emotional communication

Mobile Ambient Presence (Wadley, Vetere, Kulik, Hopkins,& Green, 2013)

How do we maintain social connection with non-collocated others in settings where breach of privacy or disruption are a concern? Wadley et al. explore mobile ambient presence (MAP)—an approach using mobile communication devices, such as smartphones and tablets, to convey social presence and therefore sustain social connection.

Though MAP—or any other current technology for that matter—is unable to physically bring remote people together, its ability to convey social presence should not be undervalued. The use of ambient technology shows promise and could be an interesting area to delve further into.

Points of Interest

  • Mobile devices to convey ambient presence
  • Communication in public spaces or situations where interruption is not welcome/appreciated

It’s Neat to Feel the Heat: How Can We Hold Hands at a Distance? (Gooch & Watts, 2012)

Gooch & Watts explore the potential of a communication system for long distance couples based on the metaphor of holding hands. They developed and tested three prototypes which used sensory mediums and each presented the metaphor in a distinct way. The first system (YourGlove) used movement to mimic hand holding. It quickly became unpopular with the participants, however, who noted the uncanniness of a bodiless hand. HotHands and HotMitts differed from YourGlove, in that they both used heat to convey presence, and were based off unique casts or imprints of the couple’s hands.

What I found interesting was how you can run the risk of having too strong a metaphor, which can lead to “a sense of alien agency or creepiness” (Gooch & Watts, 2012, p. 1539). Some level of abstraction may therefore be needed when using a metaphor to communicate intimacy.

Point of Interest

  • Abstract-, object-, and behaviour-based communication systems

Communicating Intimacy One Bit at a Time (Kaye, Levitt, Nevins, Golden, & Schmidt, 2005)

How simple can communicating intimacy for couples in long distance relationships be? According to a user study done by Kaye et al., it can be as simple as a one bit message system. The Virtual Intimate Object (VIO) allows couples to share meaningful interactions, simply by clicking on a circle located in their taskbar. When clicked, the circle of their partner becomes a bright red, and then fades slowly throughout the day. The power of this system lies in the ability of the user to experience and interpret the simple red circle as they see fit.

Points of Interest

  • Low bandwidth devices
  • Notion of gifts

Designing Ritual Artifacts for Technology-Mediated Relationship Transitions (Klüber, Löffler, Hassenzahl, Nord, & Hurtienne, 2020)

Although we tend to use the words routine and ritual interchangeably in everyday language, there is an important distinction between the two. A routine is something we engage in on a regular basis, such as brushing our teeth every morning or taking our daily vitamins. In contrast to these mundane actions, are the symbolic actions of a ritual, which focus on bringing higher meaning to certain experiences. Klüber et al. hone in on this difference, arguing that the topic of “‘couple technologies’ for sweethearts that temporarily live apart,” specifically the support and maintenance of their routines— not rituals—has been extensively studied in HCI. Their research therefore focuses on the design potential of technology-mediated relationship transition rituals (RTR). In other words, how can technology support or enhance ritual transitions (e.g. change in relationship status) for couples?

Points of Interest

  • Distinction between routine and ritual
  • Six pointers for designing ritual artifacts

Supplement I: The Problem of Meaning in Primitive Languages (Malinowski, 1923)

The first real discussion of the principal of phatic communication was started by Bronislaw Malinowski in his essay The Problem of Meaning in Primitive Languages in 1923. Malinowski described phatic communion as the handshake of verbal communication. He explains that “the modern English expression, ‘Nice day to-day’ or the Melanesian phrase, ‘Whence comest thou?’ are needed to get over the strange and unpleasant tension which men feel when facing each other in silence” (Malinowski, 1923, p.314). He also describes it as “serv[ing] to establish bonds of personal union between people brought together by the mere need of companionship and [it] does not serve any purpose of communicating ideas” (Malinowski, 1923, p. 316).

Point of Interest

  • A historical perspective on phatic communication

Finally a Case for Collaborative VR?: The Need to Design for Remote Multi-Party Conversations (Bleakley, Wade, & Cowan, 2020)

The social distancing measures of the pandemic have contributed to our renewed interest in how to effectively communicate remotely with the currently available technologies. One such technology is Virtual Reality (VR). VR allows people to share a virtual space and perspective, as well as contextual and environmental cues. The issue with VR, however, is that it has been designed with a single user experience in mind — not multi-party social interaction. Bleakley et al. highlight the following three main issues which need to be addressed in order to move forward with the technology: variability of social immersion, unclear collaborative roles, and the need for an effective shared visual reference.

Points of Interest

  • Renewed and growing interest in remote communication
  • Social VR

Ambient Environments for Emotional Physical Communication (Li & Jianting, 2009)

Human communication is both spoken and unspoken. In other words, it is not only what is said, but how we say it. In addition to words, we require non-verbal forms of communication, such as facial expression and gestures, to more effectively convey our emotional state. In order to retain this emotional layer of information over long-distance communication, Li & Jianting propose a coupled ambient environment network as an alternative to verbal or text-based technologies. The ambient environment of the sender would sense and interpret the movement of the user as emotions, and then use this information to communicate and affect the receiver’s environment through a change in lighting, colours, music, and projected images.

Points of Interest

  • Faberg’s emotion-movement framework
  • Emotional tangible interfaces

VR-Enabled Telepresence as a Bridge for People, Environments, and Experiences (Jones, Zhang, Wong, Rintel, & Heshmat, 2020)

In their workshop paper, Jones et al. discuss two explorations of Virtual Reality (VR) as a tool to bridge people, environments and experiences. The first concept is a VR Telepresence Robot Interface, which allows a remote user to control a unidirectional robot with an immersive 360° camera view. In the second concept, Virtual Robot Overlay for Online Meetings (VROOM), an avatar of the remote user is superimposed on a robot. While the local user can see the avatar using a HoloLens AR headset, the remote user sees their avatar in VR view.

Points of Interest

  • Distinction between telepresence & virtual presence
  • Spatial presence, social presence, co-presence, self-presence


Holoportation from Microsoft Research

Microsoft’s Holoportation uses 3D capture technology to reconstruct high-quality models of people anywhere in the world in real time. Using a HoloLens, users can then see, hear, and interact with remote participants in 3D physical space.

Although Microsoft’s Holoportation focuses on the direct, verbal exchange of information between non-collocated individuals, the technology would still allow for certain forms of nonverbal communication, such as eye contact, gestures, and facial expressions. This is crucial, because the majority of human communication is unspoken. Holoportation also demonstrates the need for an improvement in remote communication as we attempt to navigate a pandemic.

Family Rituals 2.0: Ritual Machine V from Open Lab

The machine Where are You? was built for Emmie, Mark, and their son Joseph, a family that is frequently separated due to work away from home. Consisting of two parts, a telescope for Joseph and a flag device for Emmie and
Mark, the machine is meant to be “playful and provocative, a way of creating experiences that enable conversations with the family about their attitudes to home and work” (Chatting, Elliott, Yurman, Bichard, & Kirk, 2016). Joseph can use the telescope to explore an illustrated world, searching for the flags planted by his parents while they are travelling.

What struck me about these bespoke Ritual Machines was just that—that they were carefully and thoughtfully designed for one specific family. Every family leads a different lifestyle and Open Lab attempted to explore and address this. Something also unique to this project, was the intention of these machines, not only to allow mobile workers to better connect and engage with their families, but to reflect on the separation from their families:

We were not looking for solutions to ‘the problems of separation’, rather something that would provoke conversations about their quotidian rituals, experiences of home, and separation from it (Kirk et al., 2016, p. 2477)

Tactilu: A Bracelet for Tactile Communication from panGenerator

Tactilu is a research project from panGenerator, the new media art & design collective based in Warsaw Poland. The project looks at exploring and embracing remote communication through haptic/tactile technologies.

The use of a wearable device for remote tactile communication caught my interest, because the technology is simple enough to use and easy enough to carry around.

Attachment from David Colombini

Attachment is a diploma project from David Colombini, a student who graduated from the Media and Interaction Design at ECAL in 2014. He describes the project as a poetic machine, which attempts to resist the current use of smart technologies, and instead rediscover the unexpected, the random, and the serendipitous. The machine engraves digital messages onto a thin piece of balsa wood, and then sends these messages up into the air with a balloon; it’s a message in a bottle 2.0.

Despite the fact that Attachment is not a device intended to maintain social connection between friends or family, I appreciated its poetic nature and desire to connect with others by chance.

Twin Objects from Elise Migraine

Twin Objects is another diploma project from an ECAL student, Elise Migraine. Her project explores the potential of IoT to create new, perhaps more playful, methods of communication which maintain and strengthen human connection for those in long-distance relationships.

Though simple, Migraine’s work provides a foundation upon which to build new tools of communication. I am specifically interested in how the tactility of objects could further enhance our overall sensory experience of remote communication.

FULU: Haptic Finger Nail for Augmented Reality from Studio Tada

If the human sensory experience is as rich and complex as we understand it to be, then why is this not reflected in our communication technologies? Take touch for instance, which has been proven by psychologists to communicate the following six emotions alone: anger, fear, disgust, love, gratitude and sympathy. Ryo Tada, the design engineer from Tokyo, explores how touch can be integrated into digital communication with FULU, a nail-mounted haptic interface for Augmented Reality. FULU allows the user to experience how virtual textures feel, as well as share or send touches with others remotely.

Tada’s work highlights how our current communication technologies fail to incorporate other human senses which are essential to how we express ourselves emotionally. I would also like to focus on the human sensory experience and how this affects remote communication.

Dih-Da-Dit from Camille Morizot

Dih-Da-Dit is the Master’s work of Camille Morizot from the Haut école d’art et de design in Genève. The poetic device explores a playful physical communication between non-collocated individuals by using the movement of a steel marble along two parallel metal rails.

The difference from Migraine’s Twin Objects, is how Morizot’s project invites both users to simultaneously play with Dih-Da-Dot and affect each other’s device in real time. This strengthening of social presence via simultaneous usage could be an interesting aspect to delve further into.

Seam: new communication tool for remote togetherness from Anna Puchakska, Oliver Weglinski, & Soh Heum Hwang

During the pandemic a group of Masters students from the Interaction Design programme at the Umeå Institute of Design focused on improving remote communication for marginalized groups, specifically those with early Alzheimer’s. Seam is a product-service system which easily connects users with Alzheimer’s to the digital world, where they can communicate—in the moment or by leaving messages—with their loved ones. This seamless communication supports remote connectedness and togetherness.

While the pandemic may have renewed our interest in improving and building upon our current communication technologies, we do not always consider accessibility for marginalized groups.


As we had just spent the last few weeks working on our literature reviews, we discussed together as a class the research methods we have encountered during our time at ZHdK, and also shared examples of possible research questions for our topics.

To be honest I found this exercise to be extremely difficult and slightly frustrating. At this point my topic and the literature review are not necessarily permanent and fixed; they are more a starting point to get me excited for the BA project and continue exploring.