Today, a Jawbone Up or a Nike FuelBand can quantify all sorts of things going on with our bodies, like heart rate and movement, but this information generally manifests as a number or fitness graph. It’s about activity. It’s about workouts.
Now, designers Alex Rothera and James Krahe, along with Yoshio Ishiguro, Pascal Hien, and Mathieu Le Goc, have imagined a different use case for this information. Their project, Playful Self, is a tea set and record player that’s hacked to respond to your heart rate and breathing rate, in an attempt to help you relax.
“It may sound a bit standoffish, but we truly believe the point that we haven’t found the best use case for biometric data yet,” explains Rothera. “The solution of using it for running and exercise seems to be the only answer we have seen so far, and one without much of a future.”
When you touch one of the objects, it comes to life with your biodata. Sugar will pulsate up and down in its dish to the cadence of your breathing. A tea bag will bounce in the cup to the beat of your heart. The teapot will whistle in a pitch that coincides with your heart rate. And the record player will even sing Frank Sinatra’s “Under My Skin” at a speed reflective of how much you’re currently sweating.
To pull this off, there’s a great deal of hardware at play. In the case of the sugar, a Spire sensor has to be strapped to the user’s belt in order to measure breathing, and a speaker has been rigged to shake the sugar. But the interaction itself creates a moment of reflection on both oneself and the possibilities of body-based technology.
“Our aim was to try and let people forget that the movement is created by us, but have a moment of wonder that this could be the future,” explains Rothera. “That such banal objects, like tea, could even become smart and reactive.”
Currently, Playful Self is installed at Dublin, Ireland’s Science Gallery. For the exhibit, the system has been simplified to run on heart rate alone, allowing users to wear one wristband rather than rigging themselves up with a lab-worthy series of sensors. For the designers, it’s but an early step in considering an unlimited future of the information we store in our bodies. That can be the passive beat of our heart rate, or even really sci-fi stuff.
Rothera says he’s been able to transfer data through microvoltages sent through the human body, as if your skin and hands become a USB cable between two screens. If that sounds like a wild idea, see this project by Disney Research that unlocks tablets by knowing your body’s electrical resistance, or this one that allows you to transmit sound to a speaker through a chain of people.
“It would be pretentious of us to think we personally have a life-changing idea for where to take biodata next,” Rothera says. “More realistically is for us to help give the next generation a starting point for reimagining what these numbers mean and what they should or should not be used for.”