Rooms with Moods: Built-In Emotional Awareness Is Changing the Home and Beyond

Devices that can understand and anticipate what we are feeling are helping us interact and communicate more effectively with each other, our surroundings and ourselves.

Our emotions are subject to the ebbs and flow of daily life. Even the subtlest differences in our environments can have a visceral effect on our emotional state and interactions, with new tools and sensor quantifying by exactly how much.

New systems are being developed which use sensors and advanced algorithms to understand, react to and even anticipate our moods and emotional states.

These technologies have a built-in emotional responsiveness that will change the way we think of interactivity, allowing us to connect with our surroundings, with each other and even with ourselves, in an exciting and dynamic new way.

Margaret Morris, research scientist at Intel Labs, has explored the intersection of technology and emotions, examining how computing devices might enhance our personal and professional relationships. In the interview below, Morris talks about what it means to allow technology to get to know us and how will it can help us learn more about ourselves.

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Margaret Morris: Devices now have connectivity to both our internal states and our environments. Our environments can thus become more powerful means of expressing and modulating our emotions.

The environment—lighting, temperature and acoustics, for example—has powerful effects on mood and relationships. Now, our devices, particularly our phones, can become a powerful intermediary between our environments and our psycho-social states. That is, they can potentially sense how we are doing and alter our environments accordingly.

For example, if sensor data indicates that one is isolated or stressed, it’s easy to imagine a device responding by modulating lighting, temperature, music, etc., or opening up some channel of communication with a friend. The configurations obviously need let people be in control, and easily override any suggested configurations.

Many of the apps for tracking emotional or physical states evolved as self-reflective tools. It wasn’t always clear that this data could help people connect with others.

But now we there are more examples of physical sensing linked to adjustments in clothing and other aspects of the environment. And the phone is a natural link between self and the environment. By pairing data from bio sensing and communication with applications for modulating lighting, music and temperature, the phone has exciting potential for extending the continuity between internal and external.

If there were ways of adjusting the lighting to bring you out of a negative emotional state, I think many people would be interested. Or small environmental adjustments that to help people get in sync and feel engaged—whether that’s with a friend, a date or a colleague—I think that’s very powerful, and very exciting.

As we explore connected devices and how they may change our experience of space, it is important to consider how architecture has evolved.

One limitation in modern architecture is homogeneity of experience, an erosion of variability. There’s a classic book by Lisa Heschong, “Thermal Delight in Architecture,” that traces how, over time and across cultures, sources of heat and cooling lent excitement to spaces. A fire was something to huddle around and feel warmth and connectedness; the hearth formed the center of a home. A moment of being cold or awakened by a breeze coming through a window provided similar variation. “The Psychoanalysis of Fire,” by Bachelard, also explores the powerful intrigue of the elements.

Change and variety made interactions with a space, and interactions with others in these spaces interesting. Over time, there has been a flattening out of experience with HVAC systems and invariable lighting systems. I think that connected devices will invite a lot more play with the variability of temperature as well as lighting and music. Not just for energy conservation, but for expression and intimacy. Clothing is, of course, an important part of the environment and an extension of ourselves. Many artists are now experimenting with clothing that responds to emotional states, interpersonal dynamics and ambient conditions.

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One way that technology can enhance experience is by giving us ways to feel in control of our environments.

When we exercise “environmental competence,” say by rearranging furniture or opening a window, we’re more likely to confidently conduct ourselves in that space whether we’re taking care of kids or running a business meeting.

The flipside, where we feel a lack of control, can lead to a kind of learned helplessness and a host of negative feelings. People tend to use air conditioning and heat more judiciously when they feel in control of it. Applications like NEST that allow us to intuitively modulate the temperature may help us apply resources more thoughtfully—for personal comfort and for the environment.

Surroundings are not just the room you’re in, the lights you see and the music that’s playing. Other people are also a big part of your environment, just as you are for theirs.

Of course, connecting and communicating effectively with each other is a lot tougher than adjusting a thermostat, and a digital display is much easier to read than a person’s true feelings.

The social environment is incredibly important and at times tricky to navigate. It is often hard to read and express emotional needs. Intelligent systems that passively sense mood indicators—things like facial expression, posture, the pressure on a keyboard as one types, the cadence of speech, as well as the sentiment and topics of conversation—could be put together to reflect emotional pulse of the room.

It might be that as you are visiting someone’s home or workspace, you could get cues from the environment or your devices about the mood in different zones and about what types of communication would resonate.

When thinking about it emotion and technology, it’s important to consider populations with pronounced needs.

For example, individuals who have difficulties recognizing others’ emotions or articulating their own can potentially receive great benefit from systems with emotional cues. And, some of the same design principles can generalize. I think it’s safe to say that most people have some relationships in their life that could benefit from better communication or more empathy.

Whether it’s for people who share a space or communicate over a distance, different types of cues about context and emotional dynamics hold promise for enhancing relationships. It’s not just broadcasting emotional states, but helping people read situations and communicate in a way that resonates.

We are starting to see a lot of interesting ways in which lighting, clothing and other aspects of the environment can facilitate emotional communication.

In The Real World Web, iQ by Intel and PSFK Labs explore the role internet-enabled technologies will play in connected ecosystems of the future. This series, based on a recent report, looks at the rise of the internet of things and its impact on consumer lifestyles.  

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