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The Future of Wearable Biofeedback Technology

September 25, 2014
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Let’s start by breathing in.

By breathing in, you’ve just stepped into the newest movement in wearable technology called Physiological Interaction measuring breath rate, heart rate, electrical signals from muscles and even electrical signals from your thoughts and converting them into specific actions. If you’ve ever considered it, your body is an ever changing landscape of chemical, electrical, and mechanical motions that operate in “specific ways” in response to stimulus in the world. Sensors in wearable technology can pick up these signals and form a data log over time of your physiological condition.

brainThese “specific ways” are most easily understood as emotions. In Working Memory Thought and Action, Neuroscientist Alan Baddeley describes emotions as our means for action and that rational thinking is subservient to emotions. Hmmm, types of emotions = types of action. Sounds like a marketing frenzy is about to happen. Now, we are a few years away from tapping into all your emotional thoughts and feelings, but it’s certainly easy to assess whether you are enjoying or not enjoying (level of pleasure) and calm or excited (level of arousal). Tie that with location devices like iBeacon and a physiological interaction wearable and someone might just know which sections of the store people are excited about and enjoying and which sections are not so enjoyable.

But enough about big brother. What about you? How would this kind of technology benefit you?

Biofeedback is a term defining the moment when you are able to consciously understand your own biological rhythms. A simple example is when you are looking at your heart rate on a heart monitor. If you’ve never done so, you can actually slow or raise your heart rate by simply thinking about it. That is biofeedback. At a grander scale, biofeedback can help you find certain performance patterns, such as deep focus, relaxation, or even physical performance as an athlete. If a device could provide real-time biofeedback, you could be more in control of particular emotions or be alerted to particular places that elicit certain emotions. An app could help you work through those emotional moments where you would emotionally want to act better. (Sounds like a great gift for Type “A” personalities.)

Controlling things is also possible through physiological interaction. Examples already exist in the use of electromyography (EMG) sensors picking up minor electrical signals in muscles that are tied to algorithms that initiate device commands. In other words, you move your pointer finger up and a drone lifts off the ground. You point it right, and it flies right. Other cool thoughts are exactly that: thinking a thought can also move something. Simply tie the pattern of electrical signals to the thought “up” and the drone flies up.

The revolution of wearable technology is that we are more than talking, calling, texting, emailing human beings when it comes to communicating with the world around us. We are emotional people, and our emotions drive us to act, and our actions impact the world around us. This is a fundamental human event that will not fade for the foreseeable super future. Shakespeare did a great job summing up our various emotional states so there is no need in defining them more precisely, there is a need however, in harnessing them precisely.

What’s a real world example of such a philosophy? Imagine coming home from a stressful day at work. Your wearable has calculated your stress level and compared it against those things that help alleviate that kind of stress. Now a whole theater of actions are taking shape inside your house as your car approaches. The temperature of the light calculates against the amount of sunlight coming in to color the space with just the right type of lux and hue. A small fountain turns on near the inside of the door and your door unlocks. A recipe appears on the refrigerator balanced for the amount of time and stress reduction needed to lower your blood pressure. And, of course, a small light glows over the right bottle of wine. This is the landscape of your body interacting with your home to determine the right kind of biofeedback climate. For entire families, an aggregation of physiological data can be collected and toned to the right family environment.

Humans are essentially driven by desire and desire is the attempt to obtain an emotional state. The question is how will technology integrate to fulfill our desires to achieve emotional balance in our everyday lives?

Now that you’ve breathed it all in, you can breathe out and wonder how do I emotionally feel about the future of wearable technology.

About the Author: Kevin Rooney is the Director of Innovations at DI and Ph.D. Candidate at Kansas State University developing wearable technology and studying biofeedback in relation to physiological states of emotion.

Image by www.flickr.com/photos/cblue98/<em/>