, Volume 22, Issue 1, pp 63–84

Wearables as “relationship tools”


Open Forum

DOI: 10.1007/s00146-006-0077-y

Cite this article as:
Charlesworth, J. AI & Soc (2007) 22: 63. doi:10.1007/s00146-006-0077-y


This paper describes the development of a range of “wearable tools” that were created specifically to elicit response and help establish relationships. By focusing on the notion that we are social animals, my intention is to present an approach to creating wearable prototypes based on the understanding of our interpersonal communication and social relationships. This approach is concerned with the study of our non-verbal behaviour and communication. I intend to establish the need for such an approach, outlining the various fields of research that have facilitated a number of wearable prototypes that indicate ways forward for future work.

1 Introduction

This paper describes the development of a range of “wearable tools” that were created specifically to elicit response and help establish relationships. By focusing on the notion that we are social animals, my intention is to present an approach to creating wearable prototypes based on the understanding of our interpersonal communication and social relationships. This approach is concerned with the study of our non-verbal behaviour and communication. I intend to establish the need for such an approach, outlining the various fields of research that have facilitated a number of wearable prototypes that indicate ways forward for future work.

I will outline a programme of research that led to a number of product proposals and written briefs generated during my self-directed postgraduate industrial design degree. One set of proposals, entitled the Non-Verbal Behaviour Programme, was based on our non-verbal communication with each other. I was fascinated by the way we physically conduct ourselves and interact with each other in a public and private environment. I assembled a number of prototypes to elicit response between people with the intention to give permission for them to emotionally react and interact with one another on a non-verbal, intuitive level of communication, thus leading to a verbal relationship.

1.1 A little taster of what is to come

What I have intended to describe in this paper are meaningful proposals that suggest alternative ways of managing and creating our relationships. These “wearable tools” encourage us to reconsider how we interact with each other.

They include:
  • A “massageshirt” that assists a platonic relationship (Fig. 1).

  • A “work-in-progress” that concentrates on the manipulation of our courting/flirting behaviour (Fig. 2).

  • An item of clothing that encourages the onlooker to stare at a woman’s breasts (Fig. 3).

  • A set of proposals, with the aid of pockets, that promotes closer physical contact between lovers (Fig. 4).

Although these product proposals are not reliant on any electronic system they are wearable tools that focus on the user experience. The message at the Wireless LAN (local area network) conference at Kensington Olympia in April 2005 acknowledged that now more than ever there is a need to concentrate on people and their product experiences and not just the development of the technology.
Fig. 1

The massage shirt
Fig. 2

The contact skirt
Fig. 3

The pocket shirt
Fig. 4

The joggle shirt

Alan South of Ideo Europe mentioned in his speech that we must, “...focus on the user, get insight. Go out there in the real world, real people and real scenarios”.

Chris Clark, CEO of BT Openzone, underlined the fact that there is wider use of WiFi devices and awareness of Hotspots yet “...Customer experience is still a major problem...”

I believe that the user and their relationships should still be leading the design of wearable technology and smart clothing products.

Before I introduce the projects and the specific subjects that informed them I would like to address some broader questions concerning relationships. Such as: what is a relationship? What types of relationships are there? How do we interact with each other? How does physical contact affect our relationships?

1.2 What is a relationship?

A relationship is an association or connection between two or more things. Within the context of human relations it could be described as a particular state of social connectedness existing between people. The term interpersonal relationship characterizes this state as an emotional, physical interaction occurring between two or more people. An interpersonal relationship is a social relationship that is central to our everyday lives. This could range from the civil union of marriage, the romantic relationship, the sexual relationship, the family relationship (kinship) friendship, acquaintanceship, and the professional relationship.

Each member within each relationship expects a different type of communication to occur. The interpersonal communication is the most common and pervasive mode of communication that helps to build and maintain these relationships and occurs whenever two people engage in face-to-face interaction.

1.3 How do we socially interact with each other?

Face-to-face social interaction involves words and numerous forms of non-verbal behaviour yet not all of this non-verbal behaviour is intended communication to others. The major importance of non-verbal behaviour is the interpretation of non-verbal communication signs by the recipient of the message.

Frequently, the interpretation and recognition of non-verbal messages is subconscious.

Non-verbal communication is key to our interpersonal relationships and each of us gives and responds to thousands of non-verbal messages daily in our lives. When we interact with others we exchange information and meaning through the gestures, expressions, postures and vocal mannerisms that we adopt unconsciously.

One example could be the way we meet each other in the street. We look at each other in the eyes, smile, stop, shake hands, talk and then walk on by waving and smiling. Or the way we subconsciously act when we are nervous; scratching our head, biting our lips, clearing our throat or stroking an arm. Various dimensions of non-verbal communication include the movement of our facial expressions, posture, kinesics (our limb movements), occulesics (eye behaviour), proxemics (distance between each other) and paralanguage (tone of voice). Gestures are also part of our non-verbal exchanges between individuals concerned and are used in the course of our thinking. However, a gesture is any action that consciously communicates a visually informative sign to an onlooker, e.g., a handshake, finger crossing, hand wave.

In 1872 Charles Darwin published the seminal work “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals” and bought the idea of non-verbal behaviour to the public’s attention. His work inspired many others of various disciplines to investigate the notion of non-verbal communication. Over many decades sociologists and research scientists have studied non-verbal communication, giving rise to a significant body of research. The psychologist professor Albert Mehrabian (1971) known for his pioneering work in the field of non-verbal communication found that during face to face verbal exchange only a small percentage of the meaning was conveyed through spoken words, where as the majority was conveyed non-verbally.

These results were specific to an experiment that he carried out in controlled circumstances. According to Mehrabian (1995) his experiments have helped identify non-verbal and subtle ways in which one conveys like-dislike, power and leadership, discomfort and insecurity, social attractiveness, or persuasiveness.

1.4 How does haptic perception and touch affect our relationships?

Haptic perception refers to the touching behaviour that frequently occurs in a variety of circumstances during our social interaction.

This perception results from a broad range of contacts between our environment and our bodies. When an object is handled it becomes identified and we obtain information about its shape from the position of our fingers (kinesthesis) and contact from the skin (cutaneous information). Cutaneous information is direct mechanical stimulation of the body’s surface. Kinesthetic information is the stress and strain information of our body parts position and movement in space that we gather from our muscles, tendons and joints of our fingers and hands. What we make of the world is through our senses. Of all the senses, touch is most linked to emotion and feeling. Our sense of touch is constantly altered via the perception of our own bodily state as we take in what is outside of that state. Tactile perception that we experience gives us an extended sense of living and acting in space. Touch cues are used through out our lives to show emotion in settings of childcare, courtship and to establish rapport. For example the way we hug each other to console one another or the first time a couple hold each other’s hand.

The following sections describe the development of four product proposals areas and their key subjects that formed the Non-Verbal Behaviour Programme.

2 Rapportwear

This first set of proposals I have called Rapportwear and refer to a number of subjects including haptic behaviour, our professional and platonic relationships and rapport and body contact tie signs.

Rapportwear is range of “wearable tools” produced to subtly provoke non-verbal communication that would provide good rapport in the context of professional relationships.

2.1 Professional relationships

Rapportwear focuses on our professional relationships and how these can be affected by our own non-verbal behaviour, in particular our haptic behaviour. We spend a large portion of our day at work. It consumes a huge amount of our time and increasingly defines us to ourselves and other people. In today’s information and service-centered economies, success in one’s career is greatly affected by our ability to relate to others interpersonally. It is therefore very important that we are able to establish good rapport and encourage successful interpersonal relations with our colleagues and clients.

2.2 Body contact tie-signs

According to Desmond Morris (1977) a body contact tie-sign is displayed whenever the bond between two people expresses itself in the form of a physical touching of one by the other. There are many varieties and degrees of haptic behaviour that are affected by a number of factors: the relationship between the two people, their cultural differences and their ability to overcome their natural inclination to keep their distance but to also make contact. When physical contact is made, the bonding process has begun.

2.3 Rapport and bonding

Rapport is one of the most important characteristics of human interaction. David Givens (1998) defines rapport in the context of an interpersonal relationship as a pleasant feeling of mutual trust, affinity, and friendship established through verbal and non-verbal means. An emotional bond based on knowing that those within the relationship understand and share each other’s concerns. There are a number of techniques that are supposed to be beneficial in building rapport such as mirroring (isopraxism) matching your body language (i.e., posture, gesture); maintaining eye contact; and matching breathing rhythm.

2.4 Platonic relationships

A platonic relationship is an affectionate and friendly relationship into which the sexual element does not enter, especially in cases where one might easily assume otherwise. A simple example of platonic relationships is friendship between the opposite sexes.

In the context of a professional relationship there are a number of appropriate body contact tie-signs that can be used. This haptic behaviour can convey different messages that in business communication are very important for creating good first impressions when greeting new business clients or colleagues.

The one tie-sign I focused upon was the handshake. It is a widespread tactile gesture that can differ between various levels of intimacy across different cultures and societies. Grasping another’s hand is a widespread means of expressing congratulations, agreement, farewell and greeting. This subtle intervention (Fig. 5) acts as a reminder that a simple tactile gesture is all that is needed to create good rapport with new clients and colleagues. It communicates to the recipient as well as the wearer emphasizing their recent encounter.
Fig. 5


To encourage the notion of mirroring, one prototype idea uses colour and texture. It is applied to the wearer’s upper body clothing to attract attention and encourage the formal handshake to be more personal (Figs. 6, 7, 8, 9).
Fig. 6

Concept drawing
Fig. 7

Experiments with red felt markers
Fig. 8

Experiments with red felt markers
Fig. 9

The massage shirt

These body contact tie-signs can also be encouraged to maintain good rapport and good relationships between peers. With this in mind I considered what would encourage colleagues to touch each other beyond the formalities of a handshake and ensure the relationship remained platonic.

The massageshirt guides peers to relieve back stress in the wearer (Figs. 9, 10, 11).
Fig. 10

The massage shirt
Fig. 11

The massage shirt

3 Courtingwear

The next set of proposals entitled courtingwear refers to certain subject areas including the courting process, flirting gestures and “auto-contact behaviour”.

Courtingwear is a work-in-progress that consists of a range of “wearable tools” using colour, texture and graphical language to encourage the wearer to perform attention grabbing, flirting signals. Facilitating the first step towards verbal communication and establishing an intimate relationship.

3.1 Courting process

Flirting is a universal and essential aspect of human interaction, a basic instinct of human nature. If we did not initiate contact and express interest, the human species would become extinct. Flirting is governed by a complex set of unwritten laws of etiquette. These rules dictate where, when, with whom and in what manner we flirt.

According to research carried out by Kate Fox (2005) flirting is most socially acceptable at parties, social occasions and in some public settings, usually where alcohol is served—such as bars, pubs, night-clubs, restaurants, etc. Flirting in drinking-places is, however, subject to more conditions and restrictions than at parties. In pubs, for example, the area around the bar counter is universally understood to be the “public zone”, where initiating conversation with a stranger is acceptable, whereas sitting at a table usually indicates a greater desire for privacy. Tables furthest from the bar counter are the most “private” zones.

Conveying that you like someone and judging whether or not the attraction is mutual, involves a combination of verbal and non-verbal communication skills. Non-verbal signals will tell you much more about their feelings towards you than the words they use. Unlike the spoken word, our non-verbal behaviour can signal invitation, acceptance or refusal without being too obvious, without causing offence or making binding commitments.

There are a number of flirting signals that can attract the attention of someone you like and elicit a reaction from the potential partner.

Some inviting flirting gestures include the head tilt, a smile, catching the eye, moistening the lips, gazing, arching the back, postural synchrony (isopraxism) and self-touching (auto contact behaviour).

3.2 Auto contact behaviour

Desmond Morris (1977) coined the term auto contact behaviour and explained that it occurs when we touch, stroke or hug ourselves. It can provide genuine, uncontrived clues concerning our inner moods. They can be movements that provide comfort and suggest sexually inviting poses and flirting gestures. For example stroking one’s own thighs, crossing and uncrossing one’s legs, hands on hips, thumbs resting in belts/pockets, hair flicking, touching the head, clasping the hands, hugging oneself, stroking arms, scratching an itch or placing the hand to the mouth.

Based on this research I am currently in the process of creating a number of wearable prototypes that encourage flirting gestures (Figs. 12, 13, 14, 15, 16).
Fig. 12

Concept drawing
Fig. 13

Experiments with coloured markers and tape
Fig. 14

Experiments with coloured markers and tape
Fig. 15

Experiments with coloured markers and tape
Fig. 16

Experiments with coloured markers and tape

4 Cheekywear

This next section refers to a range of subjects including the non-verbal behaviour term known as proxemics and the notion that body adornment can be encoded as a sign of non-verbal communication. Cheekywear is a provocative range of clothing that provides permission for a person to stare at the wearer and enter their personal space boundary and establish verbal communication.

4.1 Proxemics

Proxemics is the study of socially conditioned spatial factors in ordinary human relations. Changing the distance between two people can convey a desire for intimacy; declare a lack of interest, or increase/decrease domination. There are a number of aspects that continuously and automatically adjust our use of space during an interaction that can affect the success of our interpersonal communication.

The researcher Edward T. Hall coined the term “proxemics” in 1963 when he investigated man’s use of personal space. Hall (1966) argued that human perceptions of space, although derived from sensory apparatus that all humans share, are molded and patterned by culture. He identified that the personal spaces surrounding individuals for the purpose of communication uses four categories:
  • Intimate space for touching or whispering is acceptable for only the closest friends and intimates.

  • Personal space for conversations among family and good friends.

  • Social space for conversations among business associates, acquaintances and strangers in small spaces e.g., bus stops and lifts.

  • Public space of which people will perceive interactions as impersonal and anonymous.

Our use of personal distance can directly relate to our interpretation of the meaning of messages conveyed by the other person.

However, different cultures can set different norms of personal zones of space, for example low-contact cultures (North American, Northern Europeans, Asians) favor the social space for interaction and little physical contact. High-contact cultures (Mediterranean, Arab, Latin) prefer the more intimate and personal spaces and much contact between people. Differences in personality can lead to different interpretations of personal space and touching. The solution lies in being able to read others’ styles and level of flexibility. This knowledge and use of proxemics can have a huge affect on the success of our interpersonal communication.

4.2 Body adornment

One chapter in Alison Lurie’s (1992) The Language of Clothing entitled “Clothing as a sign system” suggests that for thousands of years human beings have communicated with one another first in the language of dress. The terms semiotics and product semantics coined by philosophers and design theorists including Roland Barthes and Michael McCoy deals with the notion that words and products can communicate and transmit messages, acting as signs to be encoded. It could be said that body adornment acts as another system of non-verbal communication signs that are to be encoded. What we wear acts as a wearable sign to the onlooker to accent our strength and beauty, to express our ethnicity, status, affiliation, and moods and to broadcast our sexual preferences. One important function of clothing has been to promote erotic activity, to attract men and women to one another. Certain parts of the human form that are considered sexually arousing are often covered in such a way as to exaggerate and draw attention to them, in particular the breast area.

With these subjects in mind I conceived a range of wearables that would attract attention to the wearer.

This range of wearable shirts transmits a non-verbal sign. These shirts attract attention, permitting the onlooker to stare shamelessly at the wearer and alter the proxemic space by entering the wearer’s personal boundary, establishing a possible verbal interaction (Figs. 17, 18, 19, 20).
Fig. 17

The joggleshirt
Fig. 18

The joggleshirt
Fig. 19

The bakewellshirt
Fig. 20

The tasselshirt

5 Pocketwear

The final set of proposals is named pocketwear and refers to the psychology of clothing as mentioned previously, our romantic relationships and kinesics. Pocketwear is range of clothing that promotes closer physical contact between lovers.

5.1 Romantic relationships

Romantic relationships are often conceptualized as friendships marked by passion, commitment and intimacy. An intimate relationship is an interpersonal relationship where there is a great deal of physical or emotional intimacy. It is usually characterized by passionate love and attachment. Although the majority of this physical intimacy is private there are a number of recognized public signs of intimacy including hugging, holding hands and kissing.

5.2 Kinesics

Kinesics is one dimension of non-verbal behaviour that is related to movement, either of any part of the body or the body as a whole. Ray Birdwhistell (1952), an anthropologist who wished to study how different people communicate through posture, gesture, stance, and movement, first used the term. His first book Introduction to Kinesics discusses his studies of body motion and the importance of non-verbal gestures in human communication. The waist embrace or hug allows two people to walk together, side-by-side pressing their side against each other. This is a very intimate kinesic movement and the arm around the waist action is a clear indicator that the bond between the couple/lovers is strong and deep.

This T-shirt encourages tactile gestures and transmits two possible non-verbal messages about the wearer’s provocative attitude towards their intimate personal life; “I have a someone” and “I want to be close” or “please touch me” (Figs. 21, 22).
Fig. 21

The pocketshirt
Fig. 22

The pocketshirt

I have noticed that in public areas such as bus stops, in crowds or whilst walking down the street, couples tend to place their hand around their partners’ waist and stretch to fit their hand into a trouser pocket.

I began to wonder how this observation could be integrated into the design of trousers or skirts enabling comfortable tactile connection between couples (Figs. 23, 24).
Fig. 23

The pocketskirt
Fig. 24

The pocketskirt

Another product proposal uses graphical language to communicate, “please hug me” or “I have someone”. A couple each wears their own T-shirt with their partner’s hand size on the back in corresponding blue and pink dashed lines (Figs. 25, 26).
Fig. 25

Concept drawing
Fig. 26

The hugshirt

6 Conclusion

This paper has described the development of a range of “wearable tools” that were created specifically to elicit response and help establish relationships. To give permission for people to emotionally react and interact with one another on a non-verbal, intuitive level of communication, thus leading to a verbal relationship.

These proposals suggest alternative ways of managing and creating our relationships and encourage us to reconsider how we interact with each other. Of course what this paper has described only scratches the surface and I believe that these “wearable tools” have huge potential for future development. Each set of proposals has much room for development and creates a foundation for a unique range of wearable “e-tools” that will sensitively address the increasingly complex relationship between people and technology.

The field of wearable computing, technology and smart clothing is far reaching.

Ranging from Steve Mann’s and now Xybernaut’s notion of wearing a CPU on your hip connected to an e-visor, environment sensors and biofeedback in military uniforms, health monitors and GPRS tags for elderly patients produced by Ekahau to Philips’ Smart Connection lifestyle products that turn a jacket into a music interface and the XS Lab’s experiments in Reactive Fashion and e-textiles.

This paper has underlined the importance that the user experience should still be leading the design of wearable technology and smart clothing products. Wearable technology will move forward if we continue to focus on creating better experiences and relationships for the future.

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag London Limited 2007