Being alone together is a trend tech can't resist
With the rising number of single households, companies have been pumping out products — meal kits, smart home services and smaller home appliances for one — to meet their unique needs.
But now, the new focus is to cater to their loneliness, helping them form emotional bonds through technology and other services.
Technology — especially internet of things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI) — can play a pivotal role in bringing people together. The IoT market is growing, and single households are expected to be the key customers. According to Ministry of Science and ICT, Korea’s IoT market was valued at 13.5 trillion won ($11.8 billion) last year, up 8 percent on year.
“Considering the rapid growth, single households would be the core consumers of AI adopted products in the future,” said Cho Jae-young, a professor teaching advertisement and public relations at Chungwoon University. “The real advantage of AI may be shown in the use by single persons, who must do many things by themselves without anyone’s help.”
Seoul National University’s Research Lab for Single Household Life is one of the players in the industry, specializing in solving problems of single households living in share houses. It partnered with Share One Sillim, a communal living space in Sillim-dong, southern Seoul, and has been testing its Share One Wiki speaker at the residence.
“For one person households these days, maintaining an adequate distance is very important,” said Lee Joong-seek, a user experience professor at Seoul National University and advising professor to the Research Lab for Single Household Life. “They want to be near people but don’t want to be too close, wanting to be alone at a bustling cafe or meet up with people they don’t even know names of for a Nike Run event and promptly part ways after.”
Share One Wiki started with a simple question: how can technology connect one-person households? Although communal living spaces tend to have Kakao Talk group chats or online websites for residents to communicate with each other, most of the communications are somewhat dull and one-way, only passing along notifications and announcements.
The lab hosted a workshop with Share One Sillim residents last August, to ask about moments they felt the need for someone else. Most of the answers were related to micro-local information — the best spot for a night walk, shortcuts to the subway and favorite bakeries or restaurants — that only nearby residents could know.
Basic information, such as rules of Share One Sillim and pro-tips for beginner single households, was put into the speaker’s database. Every other question is up to the residents to ask and answer.
When a resident asks a question to Share One Wiki, speakers next door light up with a cheerful voice saying, “Knock knock, your neighbor is asking a question!”
The residents are free to answer if they wish. When given an answer, the speaker replies back to the questioner, starting the answer with “Your neighbor is speaking!” to make the conversation feel more personal and real.
“It felt more like an intimate community because I could share information with the people I live with,” said one of the residents at Share One Sillim, who wished to remain anonymous.
After going through a test run at the share house, the research lab plans to develop Share One Wiki into a mobile chat bot.
Another project is "prehension technology." The lab installed motion sensors at communal spaces of Share One Sillim, showing real-time information about how many people are at the kitchen, living room, gym and more.
“Despite living in a share house, people spend most of the time in their rooms, so we wanted to motivate activity,” said Lee. “In cases where there were one to two people, we found that many went to join the group.”
The lab is currently in discussions to install the motion sensor boards in another share house, expanding their scope of experimentation.
Like others, Lee and his research lab plans to continue to use technology for single households.
“Technology is one of the factors that contributed to the rise in single person households — beginner single households aren’t scared or worried about facing obstacles because questions can be easily solved by searching online,” said Lee. “I think that technology can also give back, solving their loneliness problems through new paradigms.”
Smaller organizations have also stepped in, prompting people living along to socialize among themselves.
Known as Korea’s first community center for single households, STAY. G hosts various programs to help their target group feel less lonely when living alone.
To do so, it offers mingling events such as social dining, yoga sessions and movie nights. Any one-person household is welcome to visit the center, participate in their programs and chill with others.
“I come here often to do my assignments or even to just watch movies,” said Mr. Park, a 28-year-old single household living in Gangnam District. “It’s a nice and quiet place to come visit and meet other people.”
Opening November 2019, STAY. G gained 745 members in just a year, and has over 1,000 members as of June. Its members aren't focused on one age group, with people in their 30s making up for 47.9 percent, 20s 26.6 percent, 40s 16.8 percent and 50s and above 7.1 percent.
According to STAY.G director Jung Jae-wook, community centers for single households will continue to rise. They were the only organization specifically targeting one-person households in 2019, but now, others who also wish to open similar venues often come to him to ask advice and seek help.
Although some may think the pandemic is an obstacle for casual meet-ups, the popularity of community center programs continues to rise with the help of online communication platforms.
“We run our online social dining events by sending meal kits to the participants and meeting on Zoom,” said Jung. “To our surprise, people didn’t find the online socializing sessions awkward and easily joined in. Our social dining events are so popular that they close almost instantly.”
Although most programs are organized and hosted by STAY.G, the center aims to help its members create a close connection outside their boundaries.
STAY. G operates a Kakao Talk group chat where residents in Gangnam District can casually chat among themselves and meet up for dinner. The center also encourages members to branch out and create clubs. It covers extra expenses for a select number of clubs that submit action plans to the center. Last year, STAY. G helped create 20 different clubs such as running clubs, volunteer groups and book clubs that are still active today.
“I hope we can help form close relationships,” said Jeong Su-mi, secretary general of STAY.G. “After a program session ended on a Saturday, I saw that some participants didn’t go straight home but gathered to read books, mingle and talk amongst themselves. That’s what we want to achieve.”
BY LEE TAE-HEE [firstname.lastname@example.org]