Persuasive Tech, and provoking breath in Amsterdam

I hadn’t heard of the Persuasive Tech before but was looking for a local (European) conference that I might be able to submit a paper to. Finding the Persuasive Tech website a few days before submission date, I decided to try for a poster, and was accepted. This marked the very first accepted publication of my PhD, although not a ‘registered’ publication as it lacks a DOI and is in the adjunct proceedings, I’m still both happy to have a publication and was pleasantly surprised at how great this conference was. The paper is hereProvoking breath: an exploration of how to remind people to breathe. 

So in order of appearance, first a bit about the project that took me to Persuasive Tech, and then a bit about the conference.

I had been thinking a lot about breath, having done a few yoga and meditation classes, especially those at Modo yoga where the focus was both on movement and breath. I had remembered reading something about “email apnea” where people stop breathing as they work, I read it years ago but it has always stuck with me, and I often make a point of taking a deep breath as I’m sitting at my desk all day and typing a million emails. Often, besides walking to and from meetings, the only movement breaks I take are coffee and movement breaks, and those are few and far between. I wanted to explore breath, how do we remind ourselves to breathe? When are we aware of our breath, and do people who have never taken a yoga or meditation class even ever notice their breathing? Some lofty questions and I thought the best way to start exploring these was to simply build a quick prototype and see what happened. At FabLab RUC, alongside my supervisor, Dan, and my art/tech partner in crime, Christian, we began to brainstorm about breath and how we might affect breathing. We started like this…

and quickly started with some material explorations of movement:

Where we noticed that if we bent this laser cut piece of wood (which was laying around the lab from a previous project, we picked it up to play with it) then we figured out pretty quickly that it could look like the movement of a stomach, in and out, or like a back, bending and straightening. Putting this together with a servo motor and an Arduino board led us here:


And you can read all about it in the paper – but basically it moves, and you follow with your own breathing. We discussed how it could be used, and for me, it was important that it wasn’t always-there, as in, on your desk. Firstly, the breathing rate is slow so you take long deep breaths and get some extra oxygen to your brain, but if you breath like that for a while, it won’t be pretty, or it will, with the stars and whatnot, but you get my drift, I’m sure. Secondly, I really wanted to provoke people into being aware of their breath, and then training themselves, much like we brush our teeth before we go to bed, just training your body to take a few deep breaths now and then. For that reason, we decided to place this in the common coffee room at DELTA where I work. There’s some 250 employees at our Hørsholm location and a coffee room on each floor, so we tried placing the device on or around the coffee maker to see what would happen. Long story short – and this isn’t covered in the paper, but will be in a future paper (the evaluations were done after this paper) people liked the concept, some wanted it as their desks, and… being a house full of engineers, most spent their time turning the device around to see what was moving the piece of wood, rather than breathing. Typical.

We got some interesting replies via interviews however, and all of that will come at a later point in a nice new paper. For now, it’s enough to say that somehow this tiny provocation is one way to change how people are aware of their bodies and breathing. Now how does this all relate to meaningfulness? If you recall, I’m interested in non-screen, tangible devices. I’m adding to that list, ‘ambient‘ devices. Things which are within an environment, having some impact on it, but not directly, and not disturbingly. I say this because of course you could have a room full of lasers which all shine in your eye if you don’t take a breath, but that’s not the concept. The concept is to make you aware of your own actions and your breathing. No apps. No notifications. No buzzing. (There’s lots of products on the market for breathing reminders which cover these three interaction modalities). Once you’re aware, it’s up to you to change your habits, to train yourself to take a breath, and hopefully by having the device in a room you visit three or four times a day, (or five, this is Scandinavia and we like our coffee!) then it will eventually sink in. And yes, this is a lot of guesswork right now, and assumptions. But that’s the point of rapid prototyping, try something out, see what happens, learn, adapt.

So back to meaningfulness. Here we’re designing for people to meaningfully consider their activity and actions and bodily engagement. One could take a big leap and say that by taking deep breaths throughout the work day, you increase your productivity (see the paper for references on that), but it’s enough to say that it will at least mildly improve your mood and stress levels. So one way things could be designed for meaningfulness is to consider their immediate effect (bodily engagement) and impact on life-at-work quality.

I’d love to hear some of your thoughts on that, let me know what you think!

The Persuasive Tech Conference

So if you’re still with us, well done, your attention is appreciated, and will be rewarded, with a video at the end.

What I liked about Persuasive Tech was the intimacy. Last time I went to CHI (20..14 maybe?), I was presenting a workshop. I’m unashamed to say that I’m the damn queen of networking when I need to be, but for the life of me, I couldn’t meet a soul at CHI. There’s simply too many people to connect, meaningfully. See how I slipped that in there? Persuasive Tech on the other hand, was like a family. Within the first few hours, I was having incredible conversations which are still continuing on Facebook, LinkedIn and through email, a month later. The setting was an old energy factory in Amsterdam and it was simply a good crowd. From the Doctoral Consortium to the workshops, and might I add, delicious and fun dinners each night, and some great speakers during the sessions, it was just a nice refreshment from your typical conference. Of course, there were too many talks, as always, but they tried to mix it up, with a poster pitching session, and break out sessions during the workshops. It was my first time presenting a poster, and I was happy to find that people were not offended by my blatant inability to follow protocol – I went for the designer approach as opposed to the paper-on-a-poster approach:

And then the Persuasive Tech part. Persuasive Tech, which I have to admit, I knew nothing about previous to the conference, is a big field with a lot of great people working to explore it. However, it seemed, from what I saw and heard, to be a lot about nudging apps or software analysing people’s decisions. For me, the theories being discussed in Persuasive Tech were familiar enough, changing people’s perceptions and behaviours, but the outcome of most of what I saw was just not the direction I was hoping to see. There was one presentation which caught my eye:

Awe. How Awe can be used as a design goal. And I loved this. I used to do this with my company, GeekPhysical where our catchphrase was “You won’t believe what I did today!” because we aimed to awe people, to make them go home and immediately tell the first person they saw what they had experienced. This could easily be one of the ‘meaningfulness’ factors. Does it cause ‘awe’? Does it make you realize that things are larger than the self? (Vastness) Does it change your schema? Does it ‘bind us to others’ or ‘elicit spiritual beliefs’? So many intriguing ways to think about how an experience can be, and how we can design for that.

Here’s a short video synopsis of the rest of the conference, enjoy!