The jovially-named Friends in Space, created by Italian information design firm Accurat in collaboration with Cristoforetti herself, allows Earth-bound users to bid her “hello” during her 6-month stint on the International Space Station (ISS).
Friends in Space is part social network, part science lesson. To log in, you must sync the app up with your Twitter, Facebook or Google plus account, and allow it to geolocate your device. In the “Now,” tab (“Past,” and “Future” tabs show the ISS’s movement through space,) Friends in Space shows your coordinates and where you are relative to Cristoforetti, and other friends in space. Here’s me:
Here is my orbit:
And here is Cristoforetti:
And her orbit:
To send a greeting to Cristoforetti, I press the “Hello!” button. If I’m in her orbit (as you can see from the map, I am not) she will be able to see my greeting (starting on Wednesday, she'll start saying hello to Earth — if you're in the ISS orbit when she sends the message, you could receive a personal salutation.) A press release for the app elaborates:
“In the now view, the default one, you can see Samantha’s real-time position in space above your head, as well as a map of all the space enthusiasts around the world that are connected to Friends in Space in that moment. By simply clicking a button you can send your “Hello” to Sam and to all your new star-gazing friends, and you will see when she says hello to all the people below her, using Twitter directly from the ISS… All the hellos will create multiple constellations of friends on the world map, united by their curiosity for space and for the unknown, and Samantha will cross these constellations with her endless movement around the Earth 15 times a day.”
That interaction is limited by design. “We wanted to play with the authentic simplicity of the gesture of waving and saying hello - just saying hello,” says Giorgia Lupi, co-founder and design director at Accurat. That simplicity allows for more organic conversation among non-space friends. When fellow app users are in your orbit (you can tell through the personalized "Control Room" tab):
You can send them tweets. They’re very endearing:
Part of the charm of Friends in Space is this seamless ability to connect with strangers who share at least one interest, and seeing what part of the world is in your app-defined orbit. “Users are able to see themselves on a the map,” says Lupi, explaining that the visualization, helps “merge the digital distance,” between users and Cristoforetti, and users and each other. “The idea is that you are a part of the map of the world that is connecting different people who are feeling the same emotion.” Which is, namely excitement about speaking with an astronaut, and anticipation of her response. And people are into it. “After two days we have thousands of users, and now everyone is saying hello compulsively.”
Plus, it’s a cool way to be in touch with people you already know. Gabriele Rossi, co-founder and managing director at Accurat, says he and Lupi used the app to say hello to a designer back in Italy. “We were saying hello to each other, and it was strange because we were talking everyday, but … seeing him on a map and interacting with him felt sort of magical.” Lupi adds that their parents in Italy are also using the app to say hello.
The project will continue to evolve over the course of Cristoforetti’s voyage. Clicking through the site’s “About” page, which explains each feature in detail, you’ll see a data visualization of Cristoforetti’s time on the ISS.
That page will become more robust over time, incorporating the astronaut's activities on the ISS (including any YouTube videos, photos etc.) and mapping out Cristoforetti’s daily routine.
Friends in Space seems to fall in the tradition of next-wave social networking apps like Ello—it is design-heavy—and like This.—it focuses on a specific interaction. But it’s a little more complicated, and that’s alright with Lupi, who believes users will respond more to beauty and attention to detail than instant ease. “The process of learning how to use it is part of the experience," she added. "We don’t believe Friends in Space needs to be intuitive immediately.”
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.