Last week I attended the first international conference on physiological computing held in Lisbon. Before commenting on the conference, it should be noted that I was one of the program co-chairs, so I am not completely objective – but as this was something of a watershed event for research in this area, I didn’t want to let the conference pass without comment on the blog.
The conference lasted for two-and-a-half days and included four keynote speakers. It was a relatively small meeting with respect to the number of delegates – but that is to be expected from a fledgling conference in an area that is somewhat niche with respect to methodology but very broad in terms of potential applications.
A couple of years ago we organised this CHI workshop on meaningful interaction in physiological computing. As much as I felt this was an important area for investigation, I also found the topic very hard to get a handle on. I recently revisited this problem in working on a co-authored book chapter with Kiel on our forthcoming collection for Springer entitled ‘Advances in Physiological Computing’ due out next May.
On reflection, much of my difficulty revolved around the complexity of defining meaningful interaction in context. For systems like BCI or ocular control, where input control is the key function, the meaningfulness of the HCI is self-evident. If I want an avatar to move forward, I expect my BCI to translate that intention into analogous action at the interface. But biocybernetic systems, where spontaneous psychophysiology is monitored, analysed and classified, are a different story. The goal of this system is to adapt in a timely and appropriate fashion and evaluating the literal meaning of that kind of interaction is complex for a host of reasons.
Following on from my earlier adventure with the stress tester, sat right next door was a love tester, presumably developed by the same company given it was using the same chassis as the stress tester*. The love tester is probably one of the most familiar, and oldest, commercial biofeedback games around. Its function is to assess the sexual magnetism of the player using a comically named rating scale e.g. “Cold and Clammy” for no magnetism, “Out of Control” for lots. A love tester is basically a gag device which uses physiological input to provide some authenticity to the assessment. Their a common prop in media where making fun of the sexual prowess of a character is needed (e.g. The Simpsons); you can often find a love tester in a bar or the funfair if you want to try one out,
On my way to work this week I spotted an old coin-operated stress tester. I haven’t seen one of these devices in a while. They use to be a common sight at shopping arcades, typically sat next to a weighing scale machine, I suppose offering an impromptu medical check-up while your out and about. Hopefully nobody took this thing seriously as it’s a complete sham!
Building a rudimentary galvanic skin response sensor
Recently I’ve been developing mechanics for a range of biofeedback projects, one of which was featured, over the summer, in an art exhibit at FACT Liverpool. These projects have been developed with the general public in mind, and so I’ve been working with consumer electronics rather than the research grade devices I normally use.
Imagine you are waiting to be interviewed for a job that you really want. You’d probably be nervous, fingers drumming the table, eyes restlessly staring around the room. The door opens and a man appears, he is wearing a lab coat and he is holding an EEG headset in both hands. He places the set on your head and says “Your interview starts now.”
This Philip K Dick scenario became reality for intern applicants at the offices of TBWA who are an advertising firm based in Istanbul. And thankfully a camera was present to capture this WTF moment for each candidate so this video could be uploaded to Vimeo.
The rationale for the exercise is quite clear. The company want to appoint people who are passionate about advertising, so working with a consultancy, they devised a test where candidates watch a series of acclaimed ads and the Epoc is used to measure their levels of ‘passion’ ‘love’ and ‘excitement’ in a scientific and numeric way. Those who exhibit the greatest passion for adverts get the job (this is the narrative of the movie; in reality one suspects/hopes they were interviewed as well).
I’ve seen at least one other blog post that expressed some reservations about the process.
Let’s take a deep breath because I have a whole shopping list of issues with this exercise.
There has been a lot of tweets and blogs devoted to an article written recently by Don Norman for the MIT Technology Review on wearable computing. The original article is here, but in summary, Norman points to an underlying paradox surrounding Google Glass etc. In the first instance, these technological artifacts are designed to enhance human abilities (allowing us to email on the move, navigate etc.), however, because of inherent limitations on the human information processing system, they have significant potential to degrade aspects of human performance. Think about browsing Amazon on your glasses whilst crossing a busy street and you get the idea.
The paragraph in Norman’s article that caught my attention and is most relevant to this blog is this one.
“Eventually we will be able to eavesdrop on both our own internal states and those of others. Tiny sensors and clever software will infer their emotional and mental states and our own. Worse, the inferences will often be wrong: a person’s pulse rate just went up, or their skin conductance just changed; there are many factors that could cause such things to happen, but technologists are apt to focus upon a simple, single interpretation.”
If there are two truisms in the area of physiological computing, they are: (1) people will always produce physiological data and (2) these data are continuously available. The passive nature of physiological monitoring and the relatively high fidelity of data that can be obtained is one reason why we’re seeing physiology and psychophysiology as candidates for Big Data collection and analysis (see my last post on the same theme). It is easy to see the appeal of physiological data in this context, to borrow a quote from Jaron Lanier’s new book “information is people in disguise” and we all have the possibility of gaining insight from the data we generate as we move through the world.
If I collect physiological data about myself, as Kiel did during the bodyblogger project, it is clear that I own that data. After all, the original ECG was generated by me and I went to the trouble of populating a database for personal use, so I don’t just own the data, I own a particular representation of the data. But if I granted a large company or government access to my data stream, who would own the data?
Following on from yesterday’s post, I quickly checked up on Innergy, Ubisoft’s entry into the biofeedback market. Announced a year after the Vitality in 2010, the game seems to of quietly disappeared off Ubisoft’s website. The most recent news report in 2012 indicated work was still on-going on the project, but no release schedule had been announced. Given the lack of PR noise this late in the year and the missing listings on Ubisoft’s webpage I don’t expect we’ll see a 2013 release or one in the future. This would be rather disappointing, although the revealed gameplay was very traditional for a a biofeedback regime, the production values where first rate e.g. art work by Rolito (see Patapon on the Sony PSP) of and which is sorely lacking in many biofeedback programs.
It looks like Nintendo have put the Vitality sensor on an indefinite hold. In answer to a question at a recent shareholder meeting, Nintendo explained that while player physiology opened interesting avenues for play the mechanics they tried didn’t work for everybody, that being 10% of the players they tested. As I posted back in 2011, when Nintendo first raised this issue, the bar Nintendo had set for the percentage of players who could successfully control their physiology was simply too high at 99%.