-Connectibles: Tangible Social Networking

jeevan kalanithi {} Object-Based Media {} MIT Media Lab

Connectibles applies tangible interface design to social networking. Connectibles allows users to represent and interact with the people in their social network using physical keepsake objects.

Connectibles are a new type of social network application rooted in physical objects and real world social behavior. The Connectibles system leverages natural gift-giving practices, presenting users with customizable gift objects (“connectibles”) that they exchange with one another.

Exchanged connectibles automatically form always-on communication channels between givers and receivers. Connectibles can be of any interaction modality: visual, tactile, aural, or anything in between. For example, let's say Mary and Bob exchange two simple touch-sensitive connectibles; when Mary touches her connectible, Bob's connectible might glow (and vice-versa).

As a user collects more and more of connectible from her friends, she builds up a dynamic, physical representation of and interface to her social network. The community of users' interactions implicitly represent the structure of the social network (who has exchanged connectibles with whom, how often they communicate with their connectibles, and so on); these data are visualized with a GUI application, allowing users to explore and interact with their social network.

The overarching goal is to examine how a set of devices might naturally and harmoniously interface the physical, virtual and social worlds.

The Connectibles network architecture instantiates a fully tangible, TCP/IP framework, allowing synchronous communication across large distances among many users. It is designed to support large numbers of objects without requiring special initialization rituals on the part of the users; it also allows highly simplified development of remote awareness applications.

The full text of the thesis can be found here; a shorter summary can be found here. This thesis was completed and accepted August 2007; a complete, functioning prototype was built and evaluated with a set of user studies. Mike Bove, Jr. (my intrepid advisor) supervised this research; Hiroshi Ishii and Judith Donath provided valuable guidance and advice as thesis readers.

This concept and technology behind this work is being patented.

One friendFrame with six connectibles plugged into it -- two pics, two knobs, two buttons.


Users snap the connectibles they collect from theif friends into a friendFrame, which provides a way to display and play with the connectibles. The friendFrame also provides power and WiFi connectivity "under the hood." The friendFrame resembles a picture frame -- but instead of putting photos into it, the user inserts her connectibles.

A set of connectibles in a friendFrame thus forms a dynamic representation and tangible interface to one's close social network. Beyond using the connectibles as modular communication media, or as a “lego” kit for representing social network structures, a user can view both the history of her and her friends’ connectible arrangements via a GUI application (The "Visual application"). This allows the user to explore both how her social network is evolving and the larger social structures of which she is a part. As users build up their collections of connectibles, larger social networks are captured, fleshed out, and made visible. The Visual application could be enhanced to support the full range of features supported by current, internet-based social network applications, merging social behavior in the physical and virtual domains.

I specifically explored three kinds of connectibles: both simple remote awareness affordances ("buttons" and "knobs") as well as full color visual displays ("pics"). See examples of these connectibles in the images here; you can find more info in the linked pdfs.

A screenshot of the Visual application. The lefthand window shows the current state of the user's friendFrame (this is automatically updated in real time as the user rearranges the physical connectibles). This user has collected two button, knob and pic connectibles each, arranging them as shown above. The righthand window contains images the user has uploaded; these images can be sent to her friends' pic connectibles with a simple drag-and-drop action.


Two button connectibles in the foreground, two filled-up friendFrames stand in the background.