In romantic relationships, friendships and workplace acquaintances, understanding a person’s emotions can be the deciding factor in the success of that relationship. It can be difficult for someone to truly understand what another person is feeling, but what if that changed? What if people could actually, physically feel another person’s emotions?
A new empathy device is making this a reality, allowing an individual to physically move another person’s hand in response to their own emotions. These involuntary hand gestures occur as the result of a mood change in the person on the other end of the device.
Based on electroencephalogram technology, or EEG, this device measures the electrical signals in a person’s brain, sending them through electrodes placed on the recipient’s arm. The device was tested on four “emotion senders” and an equal number of “emotion receivers.” The senders were given movie clips to watch that were chosen to evoke certain emotions. The main three emotions in this study were anger, sadness and amusement.
The hand signals that accompanied these emotions were based on American Sign Language. Amusement was shown by the recipient involuntarily raising one of their arms. For sadness, they would slide one arm down the front of their body; and for anger, they would be seen raising their arm and making a “claw” with their hand.
The “emotion receivers” were seen raising their arms and creating these motions through no intent of their own, but rather were guided as a puppet through the emotions of their respective “senders.”
“If you’re moving in the same way as another person you might understand that person better,” says Max Pfeiffer, lead researcher at the University of Hanover in Germany. He aims to see this technology connect people in long-distance relationships and friends who may be separated by many miles but want to stay close. In the future, he even sees this device being connected to social media profiles, sending emotional signals to many people in an individual’s network.
Other researchers have taken note of the device’s success, which will soon be presented at the Conference of Human Factors in Computing Systems.
Ernst Kruijff at the Bonn-Rhein-Sieg University of Applied Sciences in Germany is open to the idea as a new way of communicating. “It’s important to explore the boundaries of what is possible with the human body within the frame of human-computer interaction,” he says.
However, others remain slightly skeptical of the device, thinking that it may provide a hindrance to relationships rather than help. Brian Parkinson of the University of Oxford is unsure of the benefit of feeling another’s emotions so closely, stating that “sometimes a more detached form of sympathy is better for communication.”
More information on the device will be revealed when it is presented at the conference in Denver, Colorado.