The Ritual Machines

Technology has made it easier than ever for family members to stay connected even when physically apart, but phone calls and video chats can’t fully recreate a sense of togetherness. But by embedding connectivity into physical objects, the Internet of Things does hold that potential — and some British researchers have been exploring its uses in The Ritual Machines.

The project, a collaboration between the Royal College of Art’s Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design and the Digital Interaction Group at Newcastle University, is one part interactive art and one part ethnographic study. The researchers work with families to understand “their specific domestic rituals and their attitudes towards home, work, separation and reunion.” Then they create a set of connected devices specifically tailored to each family’s needs and patterns.

In one case, that meant finding a way to help a couple share a drink at the end of each day while one partner was away on business. In another, it meant tracking the sense of anticipation as a reunion between distant family members draws near. And in a third case, it meant finding a way to share messages between a working mother and her family while she is out on the road driving her lorry (or “delivery truck”, as we might say in the U.S.).

Each of the machines built to satisfy these rituals is customized to preserve a sense of connection in a way that feels natural to the people involved — such as a connected bottle opener that triggers a wine-dispensing machine at home; an hourglass-like mechanical display that is controlled by a smartphone and fills at an accelerating rate as a countdown progresses; and a microphone tucked inside in a jam jar that relays messages to a speaker in mom’s truck while she’s stuck in traffic jams.

Connected Family Interaction: The Ritual Machines

By allowing these machines to live with their families for up to eight weeks, the researchers hope to gain some additional perspective into the challenges of working away from home. They write that “the machines are deliberately playful and provocative. They do not attempt to propose a solution to the ‘problem’ of separation. Instead, they offer a conversation about what home and family life is, and what it means to be separated from it.”

The Ritual Machines is part of the larger Family Rituals 2.0 initiative. The three machines described above are on display as part of the Dublin Science Gallery’s Homesick exhibition through July, and researchers continue to work on new machines for new families. Learn more at the project’s website.

Related: Saying Things That Can’t Be Said, Networked Art

Image Credits: David Chatting

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