Can You Design a Hug?

“Hug Machine”, via

Before interning at Capsule, “Experience Design” was only an abstract term of which I had a vague understanding. Since Ive been here, its something I realize is inescapable, and its something that delves much deeper than a commercial context. I understood that engaging moments between people and brands€”moments that spark ideas, emotions and memories€”are important in brand identity. Seriously, dont even ask me about the emotional reaction I had to this Google Chrome ad.

But what I didnt realize is that experience design is happening all the time whether you recognize it or not. Each interaction with a product, brand, place or space is a designed moment, and its a pretty powerful thing. An early morning stop at my neighborhood Dunn Brothers is a much different sensory experience than an after hours excursion to Kinkos. Unsurprisingly, walking into one was a much more positive experience than the other.

So you can design moments. And you can design emotions. But what about the feeling you associate from physical touch? Can you design the feeling of protection you get when your mom rubs your back like she did when you were little? The comfort and safety of sitting in your favorite rocking chair? The warmth of a big ol bear hug from your best old friend? Can these be crafted through the same associative reaction from visual design?

Two students from the University of Tsukuba (Japan) attempted to do just that with “The Girlfriend Coat.” The coat, which looks pretty normal with the exception of a neon belt machine, winds up and tightens around the waist to simulate the feeling of being hugged from behind. But it gets even weirder. The user also wears a pair of headphones blaring “girlfriend” phrases like “Sorry Im late!”

While the designers attitude about the product is somewhat tongue-in-cheek and lighthearted, the concept isnt at all.

A phone vibration is another artificial reproduction of physical touch. The feeling of your phone ringing lets you know that someone is contacting you. That someone is reaching out. But its not the same. No matter how many Emojis someone sends, the feeling of having your hand held can only be replicated by well, having your hand held. In real life. In real time. The touch cant be designed. It’s the moment that can.

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