06:19pm Monday 01 June 2020

Romance is not dead: digital puts the spark back into relationships

Few people mull over a text message, however heartfelt, in the same way as a handwritten declaration of love, but a Newcastle University team is looking to prove that using digital communication doesn’t necessarily mean that romance is dead.

They have created digital ‘Lovers’ Boxes’ that draw on the aesthetics of traditional wooden jewellery boxes, but actually contain the latest technology to enable couples to record romantic messages for each other.

Featured in the current edition of the International Journal of Human-Computer Studies (May 2011), the initial boxes they designed for couples to trial are made from four different woods (cherry, beech, apple and walnut).

Each box consists of two halves connected by brass hinges, decorated with ornate carvings, with an antique keyhole at the front.

A computer with an integrated RFID reader is hidden inside the box. Other than the screen itself, all visible trappings of digital technology are hidden from view.

Once unlocked, the box opens in a book-like manner, and a screen becomes visible. A wooden passé-partout with rounded edges frames the screen to counter the usual connotations of a digital display.  

When placed within the box, the RFID tag in the key fob triggers a video message stored within. To avoid evoking the sense of a wooden laptop-like device, the videos created by participants are not played 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 has been described as akin to ‘an interactive storybook or jewellery box’, which the participants chose to treat carefully and stow away like a precious family heirloom. This distinguishes it from more traditional and function-orientated media such as mobile phones or laptops.

The five couples in the Newcastle University study were able to create video content for one another by working with a digital media artist.  Video was chosen by the research team as the media format as it allows the scope and flexibility to not only present text and pictures, but also moving pictures and sound.

They could personalise their messages further by configuring the time, window and dates at which the message would play, and the amount of times it could be played. For example, they could set it so the video message could be played just once, on a particular day.

The research findings showed that the creation, exchange and display of personal messages embedded in the box served as both mirrors and sources for reflection within their relationships.

Participants perceived their box as a keepsake or digital storybook of their meaningful experiences, and looked upon the exchange as an enjoyable shared hobby with their partner. The video content was also regarded as a way of providing 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,” said Ms Thieme. “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.

“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 artefacts which have the potential to enrich our personal and emotional lives.”

This work was funded by the RCUK Digital Economy Research Hub, SiDE, Social Inclusion through the Digital Economy.

Research paper: Lovers’ Box: Designing for Reflection within Romantic Relationships by Anja Thieme, Dr Jayne Wallace, James Thomas, Ko Le Chen, Prof Nicole Krämer, and Prof Patrick Olivier in International Journal of Human-Computer Studies (May 2011) Volume 69, Issue 5.


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