Wearable matchmaker to light up UMaine

Posted Feb. 13, 2009, at 9:03 p.m.

ORONO, Maine — They say when you fall in love, you see bright lights, and maybe even stars, the moon and the sun.

They probably didn’t say anything about seeing red LED lights.

It’s not as romantic as seeing stars, but a prototype developed last semester by a class of nine University of Maine junior and senior new media students could be a way to find love — or at least make more personal contact — through wearable technology.

The students’ concept, which they call the Friend Finder, is a device attached to a piece of clothing or accessory such as a purse or handbag. A series of LED lights in the fabric are programmed to light up when someone who also has the device comes within 30 feet, but only if the two people match in pre-programmed personal characteristics, likes and dislikes.

“It’s a way to establish a personal connection while using technology,” said Sean Collins of York, who was involved in the class. “It’s like an icebreaker. You walk past somebody you don’t know and it lights up. Then you get into a conversation with somebody maybe you’ve never talked to.”

The device is a very simple prototype that the students have implanted into a few sweat shirts and a canvas book bag. A video they posted on YouTube shows the technology in action — two students walking through Memorial Union who turn a corner and are standing face-to-face, their sweat shirts lit with four red lights.

“It’s definitely more of a human connection than going to check your e-mail or [social networking Web sites],” said class member and Bangor native Rebecca Wright. “I think a lot of people are still wary of meeting people online. Sure, you can sign up for a dating service and you can go meet a person face-to-face. This way, it’s initially face-to-face, and you’re not changing your pattern. You would be there anyway. You’re just doing your normal thing.”

It’s sweet to think Friend Finder someday might be used in dating situations, but the UMaine students have other, more practical ideas for its potential.

The same concept of wearable technology could be used at a business convention to match two people with similar ideas or areas of interest. It also could be used during a college freshman orientation to match students with the same interests.

“It would be a good way for students to meet people and make new friends,” Collins said.

The idea started last semester in an interactive Web design class taught by UMaine new media faculty member Mike Scott, who asked his class to come up with a project combining wearable technology and relationships. That pairing blossomed into a semester’s worth of work.

The class split into groups that worked on different aspects of the project. They were ready to put the prototype together by November.

Light-up, interactive clothing is nothing new. Class member Catherine Amato of Orono said there is a shirt that has a ruffle pattern that can both alert the wearer to a cell phone call and allow the user to send messages back through the ruffles. The group didn’t invent new technology for Friend Finder, but put the technology to-gether in a unique way.

Friend Finder starts with a computer program that asks questions to determine a person’s preferences in, for example, music, color or ideal way to spend a Saturday night and gender preference. The program is uploaded into an Arduino board, an open-source computer programming platform that uses inputs such as switches or sensors to control physical outputs such as lights. Artists and designers, for example, use Arduino boards to make interactive displays.

The sample sweat shirts each have four red LED lights stitched into a design on the front — in putting together the prototypes the class made sweat shirts with separate designs for men and women — which also are wired to the board. The system also has wireless computer chips for communication.

The whole thing is small enough to fit into the front pocket of a sweat shirt. Once attached to a battery, if two Friend Finders come near each other the wireless chips communicate. An algorithm, which the class developed for the project, compares the information for similarities.

If the information matches, the lights go on, and voila! It’s a match made in techno heaven.

Refinements in Friend Finder are continuing even though the class is over. Junior Timothy Howe of York has taken on the Friend Finder for independent study with Scott and hopes to develop real-world applications. Howe also is applying for a grant for further research on new fabrics and ways to make the device smaller and more affordable.

The practical applications are likely years away, but there’s something to be said for putting some fun and emotion into computer interaction. After all, what Friend Finder user wouldn’t feel some excitement when their red lights come on at the same time as those of the cutie across the room?

“It’s basically taking one of those [dating Web sites] and bringing it outside of the computer, and getting people to interact again in person, getting into the social aspect of communication,” Collins said. “If those Web sites work, I think this could work, and almost better. You have to be in the same area as the person [in order for the device to work], so you must like something similar about the area, whether you’re at the same school or you’re in the same town. There has to be some sort of common interest there.”

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