Scientist developing a body suit that can 'read emotions'

If you get frustrated with your computer, you can get up and walk away, but not if you are wearing it, scientist warns.
Written by Rob O'Neill, Contributor on

A New Zealand scientist is aiming to build an “emotionally aware” body suit using small, light and stretchy sensors to measure movement of the human body and transmit the information to a smart phone app.

Dr Ben O’Brien is commercialising his research through a start-up business called StretchSense.

“Huge investment is going into clothing and accessories that have technology embedded in them, such as the Google glass wearable computer, but if those portable products are not able to pick up non-verbal messages and be sensitive to people’s emotions it could be disastrous,” ,” O’Brien said.

“If you become frustrated while sitting at a computer, you can get up and walk away but that’s not the case if the computer is embedded in your t-shirt or your shoes.”

O’Brien’s field of expertise is electroactive polymers, materials designed to change in size or shape when stimulated by an electric field.

Existing technologies were hard to use and results not reliably repeatable, he said. To solve that he invented a dielectric elastomer switch which allows the technology to be directly embedded into artificial muscle devices, giving them life-like reflexes.

To demonstrate the capability, he also helped build a computer which shows that artificial muscles can be made to “think”, It was a feature exhibit at the Big Data exhibition, held earlier this year at the National Library of New Zealand.

A starter kit is available from the StretchSense website and an app is available for Androind devices.

O’Brien, who yesterday won a major New Zealand science prize, said wearable technology that can listen to body language is so far an unexplored area, but he see it as a crucial enabler to a fast growing industry.”

He plans to use his NZ$200,000 prize money to develop an intuitive skin-tight under garment that can monitor and interpret body language, gestures and posture to accurately read the emotions of the wearer.

He said the sensors are precise and have a wide variety of applications.

“One example is rehabilitation where a healthcare professional wants to track something, like how an injury is improving over time.”

StretchSense was spun out of the Biomimetics Laboratory of the University of Auckland’s Bioengineering Institute. O’Brien continues to work at the Lab as an Honorary Research Fellow while also being CEO of his fledgling company.

“This is a boom time for soft sensing and we are riding the wave,” he said.

The top prize of NZ$500,000 was won by Distinguished Professor John Boys and Professor Grant Covic of the University of Auckland’s Inductive Power Transfer team. The two engineers have developed and commercialised wireless or inductive power transfer technology which enables high power to be delivered without electrical contact.

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