Human Emotions, Next Frontier In Wearables


Human Emotions, Next Frontier In Wearables

In The Future of Wearable Tech, iQ by Intel and PSFK Labs explore the evolving form and function of our Internet-connected devices. This series, based on a recent report, looks at the rise of wearable technologies and their impact on consumer lifestyles.  

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator marked a pivotal moment in psychiatry, setting up a framework that recognizes an individual’s personality traits within the larger context of human experience. To varying degrees, we as humans share identifiable attributes, quirks and offshoots of emotion based on these characteristics, which invite love, empathy and forgiveness from others. Deconstructing these complex human traits is a tireless challenge, which is exactly why researchers are are turning to technology to assist us in understanding our emotions so we can live better, even happier and healthier, lives.

Wearable technologies are offering an ever-expanding toolkit for deepening our own self-awareness, and some aim to help us build more meaningful relationships with others. As the enduring relevance of the Myers Briggs test speaks to our larger tendencies, sensors and display technologies are being embedded into clothing and accessories to track and reveal our emotional states in real-time. Responding to indicators like mood, stress or interpersonal interactions by displaying light, color and opacity, these fluid and adaptive materials create a novel communication stream that informs both the wearer and those around them.

In a conversation with Intel Labs research scientists Margaret Morris and Jennifer Healey, we learned how wearables like the Ger Mood Sweater and Cadbury Joy Jacket can create a window into who we are and how this might affect our relationship with loved ones.  These researchers told us that down the road we can imagine connected ecosystems and environments adapting to more closely align with our emotional states, whether you might be at home, work or riding in a car.

How can technology help us better understand our emotions?

Margie: When people are in different emotional states, they tend to dress differently. They don’t necessarily wear a t-shirt that says, “I’m sad” on it, but they may wear different colors or more loosely fitting clothes than if they’re feeling really upbeat and energetic. Similarly, the way we dress or the way we want wearables to act on our behalf is going to vary depending on either our emotional state, or even more importantly, our emotional goals.

We know a lot from psychology that we don’t want to just suppress negative emotions, but to help people interpret them. If someone’s feeling really stressed it doesn’t help to just say, “Don’t be stressed.” Technologies could begin morphing alongside emotions in fairly subtle ways that announce affiliation or affinity to certain types of color palettes, styles of dress, or even affinities in music or artistic taste.

How does this manifest into an outward expression?

Jennifer:  Wearable sensors can capture things like galvanic skin response and heart rate and begin interpreting physiological responses. The same technology is starting to translate that information into expression. We created one outfit that was similar to a porcupine. It would inflate and become pricklier as the wearer was getting more stressed out, essentially saying “Stay away from me.”

Other times a person wants real-time feedback from another person. We created this concept vest where you could feel another person’s heartbeat as a vibration, so you’d basically subscribe to the other person’s heart rate data and then feel it inside of your vest.

Margie:  What I really like about those two examples is that there’s this inherent playfulness in how, in one case, the blow-up suit perhaps exaggerates your mood or turns it into this caricature. Maybe the person has a choice about whether or not they want the porcupine instantiation of their stress.

In the second case, it shows how these wearables can be used to invite empathy. We saw this early on with a project called “Mega Heart Health,” which was a wearable ECG and a mobile application. The idea was detect stress of people physiologically, and then use the phone to help them breathe differently so that they could manage stress more effectively and not get overreactive.

We found that people were very curious about other people as a result of monitoring themselves. Technologies allow you to know, “Is that other person stressed?” or “Is she going through a hard time?” rather than getting irritated with someone’s actions. There are a lot of opportunities here.

What are some implications of these technologies?

Margie: If you know that someone’s emotional or physiological state is out of the normal range for them, it creates an opportunity to intervene with some sort of experience that the person might be receptive to.

For example, if someone tends to experience road rage or gets aggravated in meetings and acts in a way that isn’t in their or anyone else’s best interest, you can provide some sort of real-time help or feedback in the moment.

We can then begin thinking about what music or surroundings can bring someone along that emotional arc to help them get from where they are to where they want to be.

Where might these applications become useful at home or in the workplace?

Jennifer:It could be something that lets you know your significant other’s mood before you get home. Then you’re not just walking in blind to something. It’s actually really important to be able to have a high level picture of your family’s day when you get home. Just to get a little heads up or emotional context when you’re switching situations would be great to understand how you should respond.

Pushing this a little further, maybe someone is trying to hide their emotions, which might also be a conversation starter. How can we close the gap of separation that families have because they live, work, and play outside the home?

How could tracking these emotions translate into useful automated responses?

Margie:  I imagine links between things like the lighting applications which could easily change the color of the room as a result of mood sensing or tracking. If I’m cheerful, it might be interesting to create an appealing color to signify that mood to other people. There are interesting opportunities to convey emotional richness and acknowledge a whole array of emotional states.

People could begin having better awareness of their emotional states and the ability to feel like, “I can have a lot of different emotional experiences, but I don’t need to identify with any of them.” That’s probably the best place for people to be, and that’s also the most comfortable.

What is the next evolution of these technologies?

Jennifer: The natural extension in terms of form factor of these devices is them becoming implantable. The immediate next step is going from glasses to contact lenses. E-ink tattoos that light up could express an emotion, and that could be a new form of verbal communication. It’s the next step beyond clothes.

Margie:  It’s important for our wearables to do more than just track. Departing from an exclusive focus on individuals to focusing on relationships, which is actually what people spend most of their time thinking about, is a unique opportunity. Wearables can give you feedback about how you’re relating to the other person, whether it’s your body language or saying, “Just a second I can help you make certain adjustments that are important to you in this situation.”

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