Can a wearable bring emotional and physical well-being?

Wearables have yet to convince the world of their transformative power. Super smartwatches and fitness trackers may have become a part of our daily lives, but they still struggle to create lasting meaning for the user. However, as a period of senseless innovation evolves into super smart sensing technology, we’re shifting into an entirely new paradigm that will bring new meaning to wearables: “Welcome to emotional technology.”

Our sophisticated smart accessories will very soon be able to collect and synthesize complex information from all aspects of our lives. They will seamlessly tell us about the micro-patterns in our emotional states and behaviors. Wearables will empower us to know more about ourselves, far beyond collecting quantifiable data about our activity, calories or hours of sleep. In turn, as we upload more and more emotional data to the cloud, we’ll see the next major shift in big data.

But what will it take to drive this industry in the right direction? How can we design for further human potential and cultivate a humane data culture needed to convince the skeptics that this new technology can bring meaning to their lives?

At VINAYA, we call this “the next major movement in lifestyle technology.” Having recently introduced our next generation product, an advanced biometric wristband for emotional and physical well-being, we believe we’ve cracked the code of what it takes to design meaningful wearables.

This month, we introduced a super-smart wristband that tracks your activity, sleep quality, and breathing patterns. It leaps beyond other wearables by decoding how this impacts your emotional states, stress levels and overall mood over time. Rather than tell you in real time how you’re feeling, its purpose is to empower the user to understand patterns in their wellbeing over time, and be coached toward building better habits and lifestyle adjustments as tailored to them individually.

As more and more players arise in this space of emotional technology, the challenge is to go where no wearable has gone before. Here are four main principles we’ve adopted as a fast-growing hardware startup in our mission to push boundaries in this human-centric consumer technology space.

Mind + Body: A broader sense of wellness

Last year, Forbes reported that women weren’t buying into the wearables market. FitBit, a company valued at $4.1 billion, reported males accounted for 70% of the profits, which they’ve made efforts to rectify through a design collaboration with Tory Burch or the more “fashionable” FitBit ALTA. We’ve also seen female-focused wearable startups such as Bellabeat and Ringly trying to carve out their own niche with aggressive female-oriented marketing.

However as Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness study reports, there’s a much bigger hurdle keeping women from adopting wearables than just their design. Rather, it’s their failed approach toward a functional and holistic view of wellness. Quantifying and gamifying data might work for the competition-focused males in the room, but it totally misses the mental and emotional aspects of our wellbeing.

The complexities of human emotions have been explored by technologists for decades. The concept of using technology to monitor things like stress and happiness isn’t new, however it’s only very recently become feasible in an ‘out-of-Lab’, real life capacity.

For the first time, we’re seeing new consumer technology products developed with advanced biometric sensors, miniature electronic hardware and machine learning algorithms, so that they can seamlessly synthesize complex information taken from our bodies, minds and digital habits. Biometric sensors can measure variations in a wealth of data from your wrist, such as heart rate variability, skin galvanic response, electrodermal activity, blood oxygen levels, perspiration, and even the skin’s exposure to UV levels.

The “secret sauce” lies not just in approaching well-being in a broader sense, but in empowering people to understand and take control of their own wellbeing holistically using technology. And the only way to achieve this is to give relevant context to their data, to paint a 360-degree picture of a person’s wellbeing as they move throughout their everyday lives. 

This starts with decoding cues taken from our body, such as heart rate variability, blood oxygen levels, perspiration, respiration and skin temperature, but it doesn’t end there. We’ve figured out the next step is to cross-reference these biomarkers against things like our calendar, location and social media activity, and then correlate this with the user’s own subjective input about their experiences as to improve how the user is profiled using machine learning.

Most of us have good intentions in our daily quest of learning more about ourselves and the world around us. But as statistics show, it’s difficult for people to break out of bad habits. Empowered with the right data about our physical and emotional selves, technology just might begin to help us live the stress-free, happy and healthy life we’re all chasing after.

Cross-Pollination: Infuse human science at every step

Emotions are the final frontier of science, and we’re now beginning to understand how technology and science can help us decipher them. Modern neuroscience has gained a wealth of groundbreaking insights on the connections between measured physical reactions and emotional feelings. The next step is how we relay that insight to people in a way that meaningfully applies to their individual lives.

It’s important to research the value for the user at every step of iteration. This was a hard lesson we learned while bringing our first wearable product to market, and led us to build our own in-house research lab to do dedicated research that applies to our product development. We hired a neuroscientist, a digital anthropologist, and a psychologist. We also have knowledge share partnerships with universities and academics. This has been a crucial step toward better understanding the human psyche and building products infused with those insights.

It’s crucial to “cross-pollinate” your ideas between human sciences also. Take the question, “how do we form digital habits”, for example. An engineer with a background in neuroscience will give you a complete different answer to someone with a degree in digital anthropology. Bring their ideas together, and you can start to make magic happen. Through this kind of “research first” approach, our team has tested and adapted models used in academia on how to plot the manifestation of emotion through extensive field work, biometric studies and qualitative research

Form + Function: Keep your experience human-focused

Creating a valuable user experience goes far beyond the visual interface of a product. In designing hardware products, it starts as low as the silicon and ends as high as the database structure, or what we like to call “Sensor-to-Cloud UX”.

I believe the most important element of our user experience is that it enhances digital balance, rather than detracts from it; that it doesn’t just add to the excessive noise and  “notification nausea”. Rather than distracting the user with meaningless prompts for the sake of engagement, there is value in creating a seamless and invisible experience. By building products that encourage the user to engage in the real world while remaining connected to the important things, you’re taking on a completely different approach than slapping a miniature screen on your wrist, as with the Apple Watch.

A real challenge for wearables that detect stress or happiness will be to understand when and how they relay that sensitive data back to the user. We’ve found, for example, that people don’t want to know when they are stressed. More interesting than the real-time data is understanding trends over time.

Communicating data policy to the user is another massive hurdle the emotional technology space will face. There are plenty of skeptics who shudder at the idea of sharing data derived from their body and mind to the cloud, but they perhaps don’t realize how much ‘emotional data’ they are already leaving behind through their everyday digital interactions. Within the emotional technology space, it will be that much more important to win the user’s trust by continuously and transparently showing which data they are sharing.

Beyond the leaderboard: Think “big picture”

So what do we do with all this emotional big data? Of course, as with all technological innovation, the applications for consumer and business worlds are vast. But what’s even more valuable is what this can mean for how we as humans can achieve a heightened emotional understanding of ourselves and the world around us.

In our digital world where we communicate (and miscommunicate) more digitally than in real life, we’re working with an incredibly limited emotional lexicon. Imagine if you could express yourself more accurately to the people you connect with on this planet at the hand of your emotional data. Imagine if you could walk into a bar and know what the sentiment was there, or understand what a country struck by war is feeling. Imagine if you could pinpoint the moment you fell in love with your soulmate and see what that felt like.

Kate Unsworth is CEO and a co-founder of VINAYA, a London-based technology design studio and research lab. On June 1st, VINAYA launched their next generation product ZENTA, a biometric wristband for physical and emotional well-being, via Indiegogo.

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