MIT Invented a Vest that Hugs You When You Get a Facebook Like

Updated at 3:45 P.M.: Researchers at MIT’s Media Lab have produced a video advertising a vest they’ve invented that inflates when the user receives a Facebook “Like.” The idea is to translate “likes” into “hugs.” We’ll let one of the jacket designers, Melissa Chow, explain:

Like-A-Hug is a wearable social media vest that allows for hugs to be given via Facebook, bringing us closer despite physical distance. The vest inflates when friends ‘Like’ a photo, video, or status update on the wearer’s wall, thereby allowing us to feel the warmth, encouragement, support, or love that we feel when we receive hugs. Hugs can also be sent back to the original sender by squeezing the vest and deflating it.

We reached out to Chow who explained to us that the work came out of a collaboration with two friends at  MIT Media Lab’s group on “tangible media,” which, according to its website, focuses on “how to design seamless interfaces between humans, digital information, and the physical environment.” The back of the vest has a hole with a fan that turns on wirelessly to inflate the vest. Chow tells us, “We were interested in ideas of telepresence and how to communicate that through a product. So we came up with this as a way to explore those ideas. It was more like an exercise than anything else.” She says they did build a prototype that inflates wirelessly, though it doesn’t yet sync up with Facebook.

For whatever reason, several sites have picked up on it today, though the group finished the project last year, and Chow posted the video of it to Vimeo two months ago. (She says she didn’t even know it had caught hold online until we contacted her.)

If you watch the video below, a user wearing a not-very-chic Like-A-Hug vest takes a photo of the Boston skyline and posts it. A friend in a coffee shop, also wearing a Like-A-Hug vest, “likes” the photo album, and the photographer’s vest suddenly inflates. This person “hugs” the coffee-sipping friend back by deflating her jacket.

As Facebook has grown ever more popular — the company announced today that it has 1 billion active monthly users — a lot of researchers have wondered whether the social connections it and other networks build have become a poor substitute for in-person interactions. (See, for a decent summary of this argument, Stephen Marche’s “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely” in The Atlantic.) This vest seems designed to as a corrective to that trend, translating the ethereal social payoff of a “Like” into the physicality of a hug. This video, however, doesn’t make it look like the jacket serves as a reasonable substitute for a warm-bodied human embrace. Actually it sort of looks like a flight attendent doing a demonstration video by blowing into the tube on her life preserver. Chow says they focused more on replicating the pressure of a hug, not the look. She’s tried it herself and explains:

You know that it’s associated with a like, there’s almost like a kind of psychological impact. You definitely feel good. You’re receiving a like. Someone’s approving a status, so its like positive feedback

Maybe so, though it seems like it would get quite annoying for a person’s more popular posts that rack up a huge number of likes. Imagine if people were to actually adopt  the wearing of these vests full time (which, of course, they won’t, but suspend disbelief for a moment here.) You could see them stumbling through their wedding day, as friends upload photos of them at the alter, with a rapidly inflating and deflating jacket over their tuxedos and gowns. To quote Mean Girls‘s Gretchen Weiners, “I don’t want to be punished for being well liked!”