“Merona” is an AR project speculating the future of interpersonal interaction. The sudden pandemic forced people to keep social distancing. Social behavior such as face-to-face communication, hugging, shaking hands and the like has become inappropriate. In such a situation, we created the AR product named Merona whose attribute is a familiar. Combining the words “memo” and “corona”, it bears the mission of making up for humans’ missing social activities during the coronavirus and preserving their social memories in a novel way. It is based on the idea that people can participate in social interactions by connecting with their exclusive familiars representing their identity and carrying emotional connection with others.
A familiar spirit can be defined that “it is the double, the alter-ego, of an individual. It does not look like the individual concerned. Even though it may have an independent life of its own, it remains closely linked to the individual. The familiar spirit can be an animal (animal companion).”(Riffard, 1983, p. 132)
With the persistent global spread of COVID-19 since late 2019, and without an end to the pandemic in sight, society may need to come to terms with the prescribed use of personal protective equipment (PPE) and keep social distancing for as long as the epidemic persists. The mythos of “protection” is spreading just as quickly as the infection itself. Authorities were quick to enact safety measures such as social distancing, frequent hand washing, and more, which helped to reduce the rate at which the pandemic could spread. The WHO website contains a specific section that demonstrates when and how facial masks effectively prevent the spread of airborne particles from person to person. It can’t be denied that these protective measures have a similarly large impact on our daily life.
Field observation of social life in London and Shanghai during the pandemic.
Impacts on personal life
Wearing protective suits, such as masks, tends to be people’s daily routine. A typical facial mask covers the majority of the lower face. Many interviewees surveyed reported difficulty reading facial expressions, tone of voice, and other oral cues due to wearing facial masks, which means that protective clothing covers up some of our biological information. This drove us to think about how our natural features could be presented and how our emotions could be conveyed?
Wearing facial masks becomes a daily routine.
Impacts on social life
The public is recommended to wear masks, keep distance and avoid physical contact in the public space, which means that verbal and physical communication becomes less and less. When we enter the subway coach, we can notice that the coach has become quiet, only the engine’s mechanical sound and the voice prompt sound reminding passengers of the arrival. The atmosphere of interpersonal communication seems no longer exists. How can we do to make up for the missing social activities and our gradually alienated social relations in a novel way by letting AR familiars get involved in our social life?
Wearing masks and social distancing become public regulations in China.
A subway coach without interpersonal communication.
Inspired by AR technologies and hyper realities concept, we designed an AR familiar named “Merona.” Merona can not only represent and visualize owners’ features and emotions but also can enhance communications among people during the pandemic period.More importantly, Meronas give more meanings to both owners themselves and interpersonal communications, like establishing bonds with owners, and providing a unique perspective to observe the world. For the consideration of Merona’s specific form, we initially thought of it as an anthropomorphic animated character riding on people’s shoulders, which can magnify some subtle body movements of its owner, such as facial expressions, finger movements, etc. However, considering it needs to be much more malleable to be individually representative, we deconstructed the creature to make its initial state as simple as possible, so that it can be flexibly deformed according to its owner’s features. Finally, we picked the form of a creeping organism, which symbolizes the beginning of life, and its growth will be closely related to its owner.
Explorations for the form of Merona.
The final form of Merona.
The relationship between Meronas and their owners
Merona is a familiar that lives in each person’s mobile phone and has a specific subordination with its owner. Each Merona is exclusive to its owner since Merona’s attributes are formed by part of its owner’s biological characteristics. For example, the owner’s breath rate can determine Merona’s volume fluctuation; the owner’s facial expression can affect its surface texture; the owner’s muscle contraction can change its color; the owner’s body movement can also affect the shape of Merona. In this sense, Merona can somehow represent and visualize its owners’ features and emotions. Simultaneously, Merona provides a championship for its own via these biological interactions.
The owner and her exclusive Merona.
The interaction between Merona and its owner.
Every user’s exclusive Merona in public.
Meronas’ role in social activities
When peoples are currently wearing masks, keeping social distancing and avoiding physical contact, Meronas can participate in our social life, acting as representatives to enhance the interactions and communications among us. Merona can understand certain social etiquette and group behaviors. So when their owners’ social actions are limited, Meronas can help their owners complete their social action, amplify their emotional expression. In other words, Meronas’ existence makes up for the loss of the social atmosphere.
Meronas are assisting their owners completing the social etiquette.
Meronas are greeting on behalf of their owners.
Reflection from creators
At present, people can only use their mobile phones to summon Meronas due to technical limitations. Since we propose Meronas as our intimate familiars and extended identities, Meronas that appear only under the scanning of mobile phone software do not create the feeling that they are around and integrated with human beings. Besides, we need to consider more about the companionship between Meronas and owners. Meronas are not only created to represent their owners’ identity and exaggerate their emotions but also to act as companions, just as Meronas are in a state of coexistence with human beings.
We speculate that Merona will accompany humans more intimately and strengthen interpersonal communication more conveniently and efficiently. For instance, people in the future may wear AR glasses, so that our world can be digitized from our first perspective, where everyone has a familiar attached to them. Like the world presented by Keiichi Matsuda, in the virtual world is highly integrated with the real world. We are not optimistic about the future state of the pandemic. The situation of social dilemmas might persist endlessly. It is noteworthy that under Coronavirus’s impacts, the human living environment and habits have changed dramatically. Meronas is the AR product created to help people adapt to such changes. How the situation will develop and how people can survive will determine Merona’s evolution in our next design process.
Keiichi Matsuda. (2010). Hyper Reality.
Keiichi Matsuda. (2010). Hyper Reality. [Online] Available at: http://hyper-reality.co/ [Accessed 8th September 2020]
Pierre A. Riffard, Dictionnaire de l’ésotérisme, Paris: Payot, 1983, p. 132
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