As part of the so-called "Nurture" programme at BT's BTexact unit, the company built a synthetic vase of flowers with stalks and blossoms to symbolise specific people and relationships. As users maintain and nurture relationships, stalks perk up and buds illuminate. For example, if one stalk and bud represents a distant cousin, each time the user sends an e-mail or phones that relative, the corresponding stalk and bud appears healthier.
Although BTexact has a working prototype, the technology as whole is still in development. But according to Andrew Gower, lead designer on the project, digital vase owners will eventually be able to connect their vases to the Internet. Users would then select which relationships they want to monitor and assign those people a stem. From there, a vase owner's e-mail and mobile phone contact lists could be integrated with the system, so that the plant could update the heath of relationships itself.
The vase could also be set to monitor what sites you visit on the Internet. "Let's say Uncle George likes Arsenal football. If you read an article about Arsenal, maybe that would be an icebreaker for the next time you talk with Uncle George and the system would register it," Gower said.
"The success of Internet-based search engines that help reunite old friends and family shows that people want to maintain remote friendships, but with today's hectic lifestyles these relationships are often neglected," added Matt Lawson, head of BTexact's Radical Multimedia Lab. "Our relationship minder allows the user to programme the interface to offer a gentle reminder when a relationship is in need of contact, helping to ensure that no one gets forgotten or feels neglected."
The company also said that the digital vase could be used for business purposes, such as keeping in touch with sales contacts, monitoring employee workloads or even following important stocks and shares. Whether it is used personally or for business, BTexact stressed the fact the technology's advantage was that it was less intrusive than a conventional screen-based interface.
BTexact said the vase could launch commercially in the next year, after the software to control it is fully developed. The company is currently looking for partners to take the Nurture project to fruition.