Researchers have developed a way to interpret biological signals produced by the conductance of the skin. Using data obtained using a wrist-worn wearable sensor device that also includes an accelerometer to measure movement, the researchers’ system displays information in the form of colorful spiral graphics in real time on a smartphone as well as a recording of data for the wearer to interpret. Skin conductance is a measure of how much someone sweats, indicating their emotional reactions as well as physical reactions and is the basis for technologies such as lie detectors.

The prototype visualization system, called Affective Health, was developed to design engaging visualizations on smartphones. Bodies produce a wide range of signals that can be measured. Many useful devices that measure these signals — which is referred to as biodata — have proliferated over the years such as heart rate monitors for sports. But there are other areas of biodata that are yet to be fully developed such as skin conductance or perspiration levels.

A study group of 23 people was given the Affective Health prototype to use for a month; participants were not told what the devices were useful for. Instead, they gave guidelines that Affective Health could collect information relating to both physical and emotional reactions, how increased sweating increased conductivity, and how this was represented by different colors. Participants were left to decide the best ways of using the technology.

The researchers found that this open design stage of the study, without providing pre-specified uses, led to some participants using the system as a tool to measure and help manage their stress levels.

Others, including elite athletes, used the device to get information on their training and recovery regimes. Still other uses included logging information on their lives and tracking emotions. Few would use the technology for more than one purpose.

The study showed that if someone used the system as a sports tool, they did not see the data that spoke of stress or emotional reactions. If they looked upon it as an emotion measuring tool, they did not see the data that spoke of social processes or exertion due to sports activities.

Although the open design phase helped reveal several different practices Affective Health prototypes could be used for, the prototype lacked some of the functions needed to make it a good tool for a specific role — such as a sports training system or as a stress management tool. The researchers found the need for a second, more tailored step in the design process to make devices specific to particular roles.

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