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I’m thinking deeply about who I want to use the Hug Vest that I’m designing, and while I can always wear it to hug friends and strangers alike (which I will do eventually), one specific audience I am looking at would be parents and their young children (roughly aged 3 to 7). The reason is that the desire to hug varies drastically among adults; witness the reactions I got with prototyping the vest. There were those who readily hugged, those who refused to, and those who reluctantly did it for the sake of helping the project.

Ah, but parents and kids! According to American psychologist and educator Virginia Satir, we need four hugs a day for survival, eight a day for maintenance, and twelve a day for growth. But for working parents, it may be difficult to find the time to hug their child, let alone get a young one to sit still to receive or to give a hug.

I wanted to find out how parents and children will interact with the thermochromic vest. I loaned the vest over the weekend to my friend and studio seatmate, Chris Cannon, who has a son, Alex, who is almost four. The vest was ill-fitting for both father and son; it was designed to fit a well-endowed girl or a large man, and neither of them fit these descriptions. I was interested specifically in how the material would affect their interaction. Chris, who has been in the clutches of graduate school for two years, says that he has made hugging important:

“Hugs are very important to us, especially since I don’t see much of him these days. I ask him for hugs everyday. We also bond in countless other ways: singing silly songs, making fart jokes, playing with his toys, sitting on my shoulders when we go out for walks, riding the subway together (he loves the G train), bedtime reading, etc.”

I doubted that Chris and his family would be the ideal audience for the vest. They already hug a lot, and I’ve seen Alex on many a day or event in school enough not to doubt that Chris and his wife, Yong, put family first in spite of how busy life can get. I was curious about how Alex would interact with the reactive material and how this can affect his manner of touching, as I knew his attention span was short based on what Chris has told me over the years.

As many of my friends with children have told me, the thing about hugging and young children is that they don’t hug the way adults do. The “standard” hug I’ve observed is putting one arm over the receiver’s shoulder and the other one around the waist. Or both arms over the shoulder or around the waist, depending on the height difference of the hugger and the huggee. But kids are less structured in how they hug or touch. Chris tells me about how Alex hugs him:

“It depends on whether I’m sitting or standing. I guess he hugs me in anyway imaginable, including head butts to the groin (hey, it counts as a hug!) and climbing up my back and putting me in a chokehold.”

The good thing about the thermochromic vest is that the entire vest is reactive. Thus, it didn’t matter how Alex hugged or touched the vest because it would change color despite what type of touch he gave it.
Below are the results, and further proof that I should always get my friends involved in my project. (So great!)

Chris Cannon and son, Alex

Hug Daddy, come on!

When I asked Chris if Alex enjoyed it, he says:

“He liked it. He didn’t want to hug me as much as just slap my back with his hand repeatedly to see his handprints. I enjoyed watching him experience something new, even if it was just for a few seconds before he got bored and moved on. He liked wearing it, probably because he likes wearing our clothes in general.”

Alex wearing (or perhaps a better term would be 'swimming in') the Hug Vest.

The bit that struck me was how Alex played with the material. Why he didn’t necessarily see the vest as a way to hug his Dad, he paid more attention to what the vest could do.

I liked how in the middle of playing and touching the vest, Alex ultimately plays with Chris, who is wearing it.
I loved this interaction, though I am mindful of who this vest is primarily for. As I said earlier, a well-bonded family like the Cannons wouldn’t have as much use for something like this. When I asked Chris frankly about whether he would buy one, he said:
“No, because we hug enough as it is (or at least I threaten to take away all of his toys until he hugs me!). Besides, then it’s a hug motivated by something other than enjoying a hug for its own sake. I’m sure he’d enjoy lights and sound added to it since a lot of his toys have that effect when he interacts with them.” [Note: italics mine]
I would be interested to see how this can play out in families where hugging is a chore. What about working parents who can’t squeeze time for a hug? Or children who need a sensorial “hook” to be sufficiently engaged in human contact? I am mindful of children’s short attention spans, especially in this video where Alex throws the vest on the couch and runs away when asked by his parents to show them how the handprints worked:
More to come, and soon.
A HUGE thank you to the Cannon family for agreeing to participate in this! Especially to Chris, who is repetitively awesome.

I’m a hugger. I can’t help it. When I see a friend, I just go for it without thinking.

There are perfectly good explanations for this. I was raised in the Philippines, land of extremely happy and friendly people. I also grew up with a lot of stuffed animals. I still sleep with a pillow I’ve had with me from the crib—it’s the only material possession that has been with me forever. And dang it, it feels good. Hugging releases oxytocin, the hormone that promotes love and trust.

But I do realize that not all people like to hug others. The idea of touching as a greeting is largely cultural, and I’ve had to adapt accordingly, depending on where I’ve lived and whom I was interacting with. In the Philippines, I hugged. In Spain, I kissed (both cheeks). Here in America, I shake hands. It is especially in the latter that I’ve felt that people respond the least positively to hugs. Many people, I’ve observed, have an invisible “wall” that illustrates their personal space. Touch may be considered as an intrusion, an interruption, or a threat. On the other hand, a hug can also be a sign of great physical intimacy that is only reserved for one’s closest family and friends.

I wanted to investigate our perception of touch. In the past week, I’ve designed a vest made out of thermochromic fabric, which my dear friend and fashion designer Kate Russell expertly sewed. The purple color changes to blue at higher temperatures; if you touch it, your hand will leave a print. The color will change back to purple when the temperature is lowered again.

For this project, I’ve used it as a social experiment of a sort; I’ve initiated a “hug session” in the studio here in SVA’s interaction design department and hugged my fellow grad students. The goal was to find out where their impressions, or “hug prints” would lie, as well as to observe how they would interact with me while wearing a vest that was responsive to their touch. I’ve known these participants for at least a year, and we’ve shared hugs before.

While investigating materials, I previously noted that people’s skin responded differently to the fabric; some were very “warm” and immediately changed the color of the fabric. Others were “colder” and barely made any difference when they touched it. How much or how little the fabric changes also depends on what the person was doing right before. This made me expect diverse levels of color change.

The hug session was conducted in the studio on the same afternoon; hence the environmental temperature was the same. The participants had also been in the studio for some time; no one was “warmer” than others because of being outdoors.

Free hugs!

The experiment was simple. Each person hugged me, and the front and the back of the vest were photographed right after each hug. The vest was returned to its normal (purple) color by sticking it for a few seconds in the freezer and afterwards letting it reach the studio temperature.

Hug then shoot. Photograph by Shanshan Gao.

For this session, there were seven willing huggers and here are the impressions they left.

Tina was extremely warm and left the darkest prints. The two of us tend to hug in the studio on a regular basis, so familiarity definitely played a role here. It also seemed as though she wanted to make her prints darker, as she hugged me the longest.

Hug prints - Tina

It seems obvious that one’s personality reflects how he touches, yet I am still taken by surprise during projects like these. My friend Min Seung is one of the most composed people I know. His hand print on the right looks radically different from the others, because it’s the area surrounding the fingers that turned blue instead. In the beginning, I hesitated because he doesn’t usually hug people yet was willing to help out with the project. (Thanks, Min Seung!)

Hug prints - Min Seung

Shanshan had this interesting impression on the front. (Doesn’t that look like an arrow pointing down?) It almost felt like she was drawing on the vest.

Hug prints - Shanshan

JoonSeo’s was interesting because when hugging, she wrapped both arms underneath, unlike the others who usually had one hand over one of my shoulders and the other one at my waist.

Hug prints - JoonSeo

Tony left these moderate impressions.

Hug prints - Tony

Chris, who sits next to me in the studio, pretended to be grumpy and growled, “How many times do I have to hug you every day?” His imprints, which were mild, seemed aligned with his quiet personality.

Hug prints - Chris

This idea of “epidermal warmth” being related to personality and temperament also seems applicable to Prachi, who is one of the most poised and calm people in the studio.

Hug prints - Prachi

At the end of the session, I had two conclusions:

1. A responsive garment made people pay attention to the act of hugging in the sense that they had the feedback of the vest to observe after the hug. In normal circumstances, people would just hug and then carry on. Here I felt that they were aware of the vest’s thermochromism, and thus affected the pressure and duration of the hug.

2. Having a garment that responds to touch can make the person want to hug the wearer more. But it can also turn people away; I had an incident where the person refused to hug (I was a sad puppy), even though we’ve hugged on other, more informal, occasions. I suspect that if I kept doing this, I would encounter people who would not like the idea of calling out this particular interaction.

There are two directions in which I can take this project:

1. Investigate how this vest can affect specific relationships, such as parent and child, or husband and wife, etc.

2. Investigate how this can play out with strangers in public spaces.

In any case, I have a lot of hugging to do.

Thank you to my huggers! Also a big thank you to interaction designer and ace photographer Prachi Pundeer, who very patiently took all the photos (except when she hugged me) and waited while we let the vest cool in the freezer for the color to return back to normal.