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Brief Published: 25 Nov 2015

Sensing Stress Remotely

Smartphones are able to decipher biosignals from minute motions

Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are developing a way for smartphones to monitor users' heart rate and breathing, even when the phone isn't being held.

The BioPhone project from MIT's Affective Computing Group found that existing smartphone accelerometers are able to decipher these body signals from minute motions, even when sitting in a pocket or shoulder bag.

Properly calibrated, this ability would be ideal for assessing and managing stress when the wearer is sedentary – for instance, while commuting or at a desk. Rising stress could prompt the phone to launch a stress-management app or offer to reschedule meetings.

The accuracy of such a technique is less than that possible with devices worn directly on the body – on average, the readings for heart rate were off by just over one beat per minute, while breathing rates were off by about a quarter of a breath per minute.

However, BioPhone furthers the group's ongoing research into monitoring health and wellness with as little intrusion as possible. The Affective Computing Group works on improving human interaction with technology by focusing on emotional and subtle interactions. A paper on the project was published in August 2015.

For more on mobile and wearable health, see Wired Health 2015 and Compressed Calm.