1/2012

Bridging the gap between
technology and human emotions

Timo Saari

Professor Timo Saari's research group explores how and
why people use certain media and communications
technologies to control their moods and develops
product ideas based on the results.

Are you tired and depressed and looking for a way to lift your spirits? Or do you feel like bouncing off the walls and want to calm down? Click the mood management button on your computer or phone and the function finds and recommends content that elicits the desired emotional state.

"Unfortunately this exaggerated example is not yet feasible. However, emotionally adaptive computer games may become reality in five years' time, because the world of a game is created screen by screen in rapid procession within the framework of specific rules," says Professor Timo Saari from the Unit of Human-Centered Technology at the TUT Department of Software Systems .

Saari conducts research into user-centred mood management from the perspective of media and communications technologies. The above is an example of psychological customization, whereby users define the emotional states they wish to achieve when using websites, games, television, mobile phones or tablets.

"Some events of a computer game can be changed to adjust the emotional tone of the game. However, the automated categorization of web pages based on their emotional impact is still difficult without human involvement. Ideally, with the mood management function, users define the emotional states that they want to experience and the ones they want to avoid."

Researchers in Finland and abroad have demonstrated that it is possible, within certain boundaries, to systematically control a person's mood with the help of technology. The research team headed by Saari has developed, among others, a prototype of a first person shooter biofeedback game, where players need to stay calm to succeed. Other kinds of user-centred mood management applications are only found as concepts in scientific papers. Psychological customization is difficult and requires extensive rule databases and sufficient computational resources.

Adjustable degree of violence

The psychological customization of computer games would benefit both users and the game industry. It would, for example, allow users to adjust the degree of violence portrayed in the game.

"Parents could block out content that they deem unsuitable for their children and turn up the intensity and excitement when only adults are playing the game," adds Saari.

Game developers, on the other hand, could appeal to a wider audience by adding a small extra component to a single game.

Role of everyday technology in mood management remains misunderstood

Saari's research group explores how and why people use certain media and communications technologies to control their moods and develops product ideas based on the results. People are continually using an array of different devices for purposes of entertainment and social interaction and to increase their feelings of happiness, but they often fail to identify the mood management motives governing their behaviour.

"People can increase their daily diet of positive emotions by using media and communications technologies, just as they do by eating, exercising and spending time with friends. The change of mood is temporary, but experiencing more positive feelings on a daily basis can have a cumulative effect on the quality of our lives in the long run", says Saari. He is highly motivated to continue research in this area - it's a warm approach to cold technology.

 

Out-relax your opponent

One example of a biofeedback game that responds to physiological signals is Relax to Win that was developed by the MIT Media Lab in the U.S. To play the game, players are connected to sensors that track their heart rate and galvanic skin response, or changes in the electrical conductivity of the skin, that rise or fall with arousal levels.

"It's easy to track physiological signals, but it's technically difficult to process the data in real time. It requires sophisticated computational tools," says Professor Timo Saari.

The players control animated dragons that are competing to reach the finish line first. In a race against stress, the more relaxed you feel, the faster your dragon goes.

"Competitions are always nerve-racking. It's hard not to get excited in the thick of the race, so it's an extremely challenging game," comments Saari.

 

Text: Marjaana Lehtinen
Photo: Petri Laitinen

 


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