The NY Times recently ran an article about “proxemics,” a term that was introduced by anthropologist Edward T. Hall in 1963 to describe the phenomenon that social distance between people can reliably be correlated with physical distance. Hall identified four types of human-to-human distance:
• intimate distance for embracing, touching or whispering (15-45 cm, 6-18 inches)
• personal distance for interactions among good friends (45-120 cm, 1.5-4 feet)
• social distance for interactions among acquaintances (1.2-3.5 m, 4-12 ft)
• public distance used for public speaking (over 3.5 m, 12 ft)
Proxemics have been subject of a host of studies by environmental psychologists, and recently the field has extended to virtual realities: Game developers now look at proxemics, and a study that observed the avatars of participants in Second Life found that some of the avatars’ physical behavior was in keeping with studies about how humans protect their personal space. Obviously, personal space matters and maintaining the integrity of one’s comfort zone is a basic human instinct. Although the right amount of personal space may vary from culture to culture, the urge to protect our public privacy against the elbow, spit, and cell phone chatter of others is universal.
“If you videotape people at a library table, it’s very clear what seat somebody will take,” The Times cites a proxemics reseacher, “one of the corner seats will go first, followed by the chair diagonally opposite because that is farthest away.” The article also refers to a TripAdvisor survey from April in which travelers indicated that if they had to pay for certain amenities, they would rather have larger seats and more legroom than massages and premium food (a current advertisement for Eos Airlines, which flies between New York and London, is promoting the fact that it offers passengers “21 square feet of personal space”). Paco Underhill, the author of "Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping,” contends that most consumers walk away from whatever they are looking at in a store if another person inadvertently brushes against their backside, disturbing their personal space.
Furthermore, researchers explain the success of the iPod with peoples' need to create exclusive private comfort zones in public space. This sounds plausible, and in fact, I wonder what percentage of music player, game consoles, PDAs, and cell phone sales can be attributed to consumers’ quest for overcoming unwelcome intimacy. As people typically avoid eye-contact in elevators, subway trains, and in other forced pseudo-intimate social situations, they find devices desirable that distract them from paying “social attention capital.” This is especially true for highly stressful situations such as waiting in public, when the whole room seems to stare at you, pitying you for being alone and having no reason to be there in the first place. In fact, I sometimes play with my BlackBerry although I don’t expect any e-mail, and I write meaningless text messages on my cell phone – just to demarcate my comfort zone and appear busy while waiting. A friend of mine once told me that eating alone in a restaurant was initially so humiliating that she took it on as a trial of courage before it eventually became the proud badge for a stronger public self.
As the population increases and cities become denser (the world population has doubled in the past 40 years and the US population tripled over the course of the Twentieth Century), understanding proxemics is becoming more and more critical not only to developers and urban planners but also to product and interaction designers. Urban planners balance public space between over-crowding and sociability; architects and interior designers such as Gensler orchestrate private and public spaces in designing office space for knowledge workers. Product and interaction designers have to take into account the most intimate personal space of consumers. As they design communication devices with social meaning, they ought to measure the comfort zone these devices are expected to create. Reclusion, however, is not the only requirement: Personal communication devices need to be bi-functional, allowing users to connect and disconnect with the outside world at their discretion – sometimes we want to hide, sometimes we want to seek. In the realm of furniture, the Ball Chair by Eero Aarnio is a perfect example of how such ambiguity can be designed. It provides a "room within a room" that protects the user from outside noises and creates a private space for relaxing or having a phone call. But by turning around its own axis on the base the view to the outer space is variable for the user, and he is thus not completely excluded from the world outside.
In the world of mobile consumer electronics, the desired “don’t stand so close to me” effect will ultimately conflict with devices that are becoming increasingly invisible, such as the iPod Shuffle, wearable electronics, or entire personal area networks (PANs) that are woven into users’ clothing. They may be more convenient to use but will no longer demarcate users’ comfort zones. In fact, their effect is paradoxical: the more intimate the interfaces, the smaller the personal space they create.