Wired Jacket Turns Website Members Into Masseurs

LOS ANGELES  – With its hugs, pokes and even vampire bites, social networking sites have always integrated the idea of physical contact into their virtual relationships. But a new project,  SOS: Stress Outsourced, adds a dimension to social networking by transforming the metaphorical touching into an actual physical sensation: a massage delivered by a wired, motorized jacket.

The jacket, on display at this year’s SIGGRAPH interactive technology and computer graphics, links to a website through a Wi-Fi chip in one of the sleeves. When the wearer hits a button in the other sleeve to indicate he or she is feeling stressed, a social networking website notifies other network members. Communicating through a Wi-Fi-linked necktie, the other website members can decide whether to activate the jacket’s massage motors in sympathy.

“It’s much more relaxing because you feel a connection with people, not because the massage is so great,” said Byron Lahey, the wearable-technology coordinator at SIGGRAPH, who was not personally involved in the project.

After a response by a critical mass of users, the jacket, which has six massage motors, starts massaging the wearer. The whole process is anonymous, although the jacket does indicate from how far away the necktie wearers responded. Responses from within 10 miles of the jacket wearer trigger a spinal massage; responses from within the same country work the inner shoulder, and responses from other countries trigger an outer-shoulder massage.

Jacket wearers can log onto a website, see where everyone who responded is located and thank them.

By augmenting online relationships with real physical contact, the SOS project seeks to create tighter-knit online communities.

Designed by students from MIT’s media lab, the SOS system is still in the testing phase, and the attending website has yet to go live.

Stuart Fox currently researches and develops physical and digital exhibit experiences at the Science Liberty Center. His news writing includes the likes of several Purch sites, including Live Science and Live Science's Life's Little Mysteries.