Last year I consulted on a Creative Exchange funded art project called Rhythmanalysis. The project was interested in the artistic expression of the biological rhythms of people from different work cultures based in Liverpool. In this case employee’s from Minsky’s hairdresser’s and Sony’s game testing lab. The project was exhibited at FACT Liverpool and has recently published a report about the venture. The report includes a short essay I wrote based on my involvement with the project which I’ve reprinted below.
Signals from the brain and body provide a wealth of information about our physical and mental states. With advances in wearable sensor technologies these signals are increasingly becoming cheaper and easier to capture outside a laboratory. These signals can be used for a variety of purposes including the tracking of a patient’s medical condition or an athlete’s physical performance during a sporting event. They can also be used to drive computers systems, creating, for example videogames which manipulate the level of difficult according to the player’s level of engagement.
One of my interests as a researcher in Physiological Computing, where computer systems use physiological signals as an input control, is in the understanding and sharing of physiological experiences. Our physiology is a powerful tool for self-introspection and long-term data collection grants us a better understanding of our daily rhythms which in turn can be used to manipulate them for the better. In 2011, I worked on a project called The Body Blogger, whereby I monitored my heartbeat rate 24 hours a day 7 days a week for an entire year. As this data was collected it was shared on the Internet in real-time allowing the general public access to the physiological changes my heart was undergoing as I was experiencing them. This project had two goals: the first goal was to investigate the daily rhythms of my own physiology and how they were influenced by the different events I encountered throughout my day; and the second goal was to develop means of conveying these rhythms to other people so they could understand what I was experiencing.
My work on the Rhythmanalysis project provided me with a different perspective on my approach to self-tracking. Unlike my previous project which focused on exploring a singular person’s data set, Rhythmanalysis was interested in simultaneously monitoring two unique groups of people over the course of a week, not only just to inform a singular participant about their own physiological experiences but also to compare and contrast their experiences with another person working in an entirely different environment. What made this project especially exciting was the participant selection. Employees from two uniquely different Liverpool based workplaces were invited to participate in this project: game testers from Sony Liverpool and hairdressers from Minsky. With each workplace operating in a completely different way, the data collected revealed interesting insights into the psychological and physiological rhythms of these two groups as well as revealing new challenges in the application of self-tracking technologies. For example, mobile phones are an excellent tool for deploying sensor technology, however owing to the security requirements involved in game testing mobile phones were not an option and so the project had to find different technologies which it could deploy. As self-quantification through sensors becomes more popular, we are likely to run into more issues where technology will need to conform to the cultural environments in which they are to be deployed. While previously cost and ease of use were an impediment to wide scale use of sensors outside a laboratory it will be interesting to see how these technologies adapt to the constraints of different work and social cultures.
The full report can be downloaded here.