Sharing Heart Rate Data: Useful as Emotional Connection but not Information Signal

9 May

Also at CHI, Petr Slovak presented a paper titled, “Understanding Heart Rate Sharing: Towards Unpacking Physiosocial Space“.

They gave pairs of people heart rate monitors and software that allowed to see various representations of the partner’s heart rate. Some pairs were intimate partners using the system at home, others were friends or colleagues using them at work.

One take-away is that people did not find the partner’s heart rate to be a useful informative signal. Without some context about the activity the partner was doing (walking up stairs? facing a difficult question at a presentation?) the heart rate fluctuations couldn’t be meaningfully interpreted. As one of their subjects put it, they could only be misinterpreted. But once the contextual information was known, the heartrate didn’t provide any additional useful information.

Despite the lack of useful information, the intimate couples reported that it was useful for creating a feeling of connection.  The heart rate information might not have carried any cognitive signal, but just knowing that it reflected some physical part of the other person made them feel emotionally connected. I asked Petr if he thought it was especially important that it be the heart, and he wasn’t sure– he thought other signals like skin temperature or body velocity (moving or not) might create the same effect, though he thought the heart has special symbolic significance as carrier of emotions.

People also noted they did not like the loss of control over their self-presentation. They have learned to conceal some of their emotional reactions and didn’t like the prospect of the heart rate feedback giving them away. One exception was a couple that asked for a bunch of extra monitors to use in their weekly poker game with friends. They rigged it up so everyone could see everyone else’s heart rate while they played. That added an extra bit of challenge: you not only needed a poker face but also a poker heart rate, and you could try to read other people’s heart rates and make inferences about their cards.

Amusingly, a few of us at the conference had our own poker game last night. At some point, someone mentioned the far out idea of playing poker hooked up to various sensors. It’s a huge conference with 15 parallel activities at a time, and none of the other poker players had seen the presentation, so I had the pleasure of reporting that someone had already implemented the far out idea.

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