Inventors unveil smart beermats that send out automatic chat-up lines

The lowly beermat, traditionally used by young pubgoers to play flicking games or build towers, may have a future as a chat-up aid.

Students in Newcastle have developed a mat which senses the presence of desirable nearby customers and projects a selection of light messages – like a news ticker or teleprompter – across tables or bars.

Prototypes will be revealed tonight at Newcastle University where piles of the so-called "dual sex" mats will be tested. Activated when touched by a drinker's glass, they initially flash a pink (for women) or blue (for men) halo which users can change by giving a second tap with their glass.

The mat can then be manoeuvred within range of a similar one being used by anyone fancied. Once within 60cm, the mat sends light messages along the bar, guided to the target mat by projectors hidden below.

"It's a twist on meeting new people in a public space," said Tom Bartindale, a PhD student at Newcastle who has developed the system with colleague Jack Weeden. "Many of us feel quite self-conscious about starting a conversation with a stranger but our mat makes that first move and also provides a talking point."

The idea builds on the beermat's occasional role as an icebreaker via jokes and quizzes printed by breweries, or flick-and-catch competitions.

Bartindale said that he and Weeden had the idea while at a bar in Germany where socialising was not going well. "We were looking around at all these isolated groups and started thinking about how we could get them talking to each other," he said.

"The mats started off as a bit of fun and then we realised that they really do have potential for bringing people together."

The prototypes will be revealed at the university's Culture Lab Jam 45 showcasing of student ideas.

Future mats may deliver bespoke messages but currently the sequence is random, with some approaches more tactful than others. The initial list includes groan-inducing lines such as "Do you come here often?" and "Is your dad a thief? Because he stole the stars and put them in your eyes."

Others include: "If I had a chance to rearrange the alphabet, I would put U and I together" and "Are you a parking ticket? Because you've got 'fine' written all over you."

Plain speakers might prefer the shortest message: "Mine's a pint."

Bartindale said the mats were also a counterbalance to the way the internet and modern communication tended to isolate people at their computers, however much they tweeted or updated their Facebook pages.

He said: "In general, technology tends to kill conversation and trigger quite antisocial behaviour – we bury ourselves in our text messaging, iPods or computer screens and never even look up to see who's standing next to us.

"The focus of our work is to use technology to encourage interaction and relationships. We want these very public text messages to break the ice and make people laugh."

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