Familiar Strangers

About the project

As humans we come to understand the places around us using a myriad of observable cues, such as public-private, large-small, daytime-nighttime, loud-quiet, and crowded-empty. Unsurprisingly, it is the people with which we share such spaces that often dominate our perception of place. Sometimes these people are friends, family and colleagues. More often, and particularly in urban public spaces, the individuals who affect us are ones that we repeatedly observe and yet do not directly interact with – our Familiar Strangers.

This research project explored the often ignored yet very meaningful relationships with Familiar Strangers. Several experiments and studies led to a design for a personal, body-worn, wireless device that extends the Familiar Stranger relationship while respecting the delicate, yet important, constraints of our feelings and relationships with strangers in public places. Sponsored by Intel Research from 2003–4, with Eric Paulos.

More complete information on the Familiar Strangers project

  • What is a familiar stranger?
  • Mapping zones of interaction in a public square in downtown Berkeley.
  • Redoing the classic study by Stanley Milgram that established the concept of "familiar strangers" – this time in downtown Berkeley rather than New York.
  • A walking tour of downtown Berkeley to investigate the relationship of place and crowds.
  • Results of co-design exercises to explore how to visualize familiar-strangers on a small, wearable display.
  • Low-power display for a wearable "mote" or mesh sensor node.
  • Prototyped "familiar stranger" device.
  • Imagined network of wearable device / stationary beacons.
  • Final mobile application