MIT App makes you intimate with a stranger

[From Fast Company’s Co.Design, where the story includes a photo gallery and a 1:03 minute video]

20 Days Stranger app graphic

MIT iPhone App Makes You Intimate With A Stranger

Over 20 days, MIT’s new app gives you a peek into someone’s life. Caveat: You never speak.

Mark Wilson
May 8, 2014

20 Day Stranger, an iPhone app by MIT Media Lab’s Playful Systems group, wants to burst the sociographic bubble of our “friend” network.

Our social media world, after all, is highly curated–it’s filled with people just like us. This app, very thoughtfully, hopes to change that. For 20 days, the app pairs you with a stranger who lives as far across the globe as possible. Over that time, you’ll receive countless intimate details about the person’s life–when the person wakes, where the person goes–except for one big piece of the puzzle. You’ll never learn the person’s name. In fact, you’ll only be able to send the person a single message at the end of the experience.

“We started by thinking, could we make some piece of software that allows you to be connected to strangers in a way that produced empathy instead of suspicion, contempt, or disdain?” Playful Systems director Kevin Slavin explains. “Yes, that’s what Chatroulette does, but the way it’s constructed has a tendency to bring out some experiences that are negative. So we wondered, how can we open up a window to your and a stranger’s life in such a way that it produced curiosity and interest?“

The team settled on a news feed that was both highly specific and vague at the same time. The software uses the iPhone’s sensors to collect very exact information. It knows for instance, when you wake, by the shaking of your phone in the morning, or whether you’re walking or driving by the speed of your GPS.

But this highly specific data is generalized to your stranger-partner to reduce stereotyping and pique interest. If you’re walking in Paris, the app will tell your partner that you’re walking and then will accompany it with Google Street View data pulled from a half-mile radius. Perhaps your “friend” will recognize Paris’s architecture, and perhaps he or she will not.

“We’re not trying to tell a story with 100% accuracy,” Slavin says. “What we’re trying to do is lift out a story with enough texture and detail to provoke you to imagine a real life somewhere else, happening right now, tied to yours.”

The details are just enough to get you to wonder, and are updated often enough throughout the day to make your partner’s foreign narrative feel familiar. The interface itself translates clean images into purposefully glitching photos to highlight the fact that this transmission has been garbled.

As of now, 20 Day Stranger is in beta testing within MIT, but the team hopes to get it released to the actual App Store in the near future. Their problem, Slavin admits, is that they can’t simply seed the software to techies in San Francisco and New York, as so many startups do when they build their user base. Rallying such tight cohorts would defeat the point.

“That’s one of our greatest priorities, who the first 1,000, 10,000, 100,000 people are,” Slavin says. “There’s no one type of person what will make it useful. It’s the heterogeneous quality of everyone in aggregate. Which is a bad [promotional] strategy if you’re making commercial software.”

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