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12/5/2013
10:25 AM
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Microsoft Says Smart Bra Monitors Mood

Prototype device aims to warn wearers of triggers that lead to emotional overeating. Don't look for it in your next Victoria's Secret catalogue, however.



8 Wearable Tech Devices To Watch
8 Wearable Tech Devices To Watch
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Reports indicate Microsoft could unveil a smartwatch sometime next year, but in the meantime, here's some unusual evidence of the company's interest in wearable technology: a smartbra designed to reduce emotional eating.

According to a newly published study, the bra is equipped with sensors that monitor the wearer's mood and trigger a smartphone app to alert the user when it detects an oncoming binge. These alerts are shaped by user feedback, enabling the bra to improve its ability to read a specific person's feelings.

Microsoft researchers conducted the study with collaborators from the University of Rochester in New York and University of Southampton in the UK. The project sought to associate emotions with poor eating habits, and to determine if wearable devices can help.

[Despite rumors to the contrary, Microsoft Is Not Killing Windows RT.]

But don't expect a Surface-branded brassiere to be on store shelves next Christmas. The researchers chose the bra form factor primarily because it allows sensors to be placed near the heart. The study noted that follow-up research is turning toward more gender-neutral devices, such as bracelets.

Before creating the bra, the researchers first had to establish relationships between a person's emotional state and the likelihood that he or she will overeat. To accomplish that, they asked participants to log both their emotions and eating patterns using a smartphone app. Not surprisingly, those who felt stressed, upset, or bored were most likely to eat outside of regular meals. 

The smartphone app, called EmoTree, allowed participants to visualize which combinations of moods were likely to trigger snacking. The app also included a breathing exercise to help users curb cravings. According to the study, EmoTree caused the vast majority of participants to become more aware of their feelings. But only 37.5% said they'd changed their behavior due to logging their emotions. The breathing exercise's efficacy, meanwhile, was "not as strong" as researchers had hoped for.

Researchers concluded it was valuable for users to monitor their emotions but that "one size fits all" intervention techniques such as the breathing exercise were too impersonal. Participant data suggested the ways in which emotional eating might be triggered or avoided vary from person to person. Only around a quarter of participants expressed enthusiasm for the technique; others suggested alternatives that ranged from being told a joke to completing a quick meditation routine.

The researchers realized many of the less-promising results could be improved by an updated smartphone app that could be customized to encourage a variety of intervention functions. In fact, the study noted that simply reading through a menu of intervention activities might be enough to "break the food focus" for some users.

The researchers built on these early tests with the bra, which was equipped with an EKG sensor, skin conductance sensor, gyroscopes, and a microprocessor powered by a 3.7-volt battery. The smart undergarment communicated with the smartphone app via Bluetooth. Data was then backed up remotely into the Microsoft Azure Cloud.

Participants continued to log moods and eating into EmoTree while the bra monitored their vital signs. According to the study, this enabled machine learning that enabled the bra to become better acquainted with its wearer's unique triggers.

Though the smart bra was designed to detect a user's stress, it ironically may have added some of its own. The study concedes that the bra was "very tedious for participants," who had to "finagle with their wardrobe throughout the day" because the bra's boards had to be recharged every three to four hours.

The study claims the smart bra was able to classify emotional fluctuations nearly three-quarters of the time. The researchers said this success rate demonstrates that "building a wearable, physiological system is feasible."

Has Microsoft struck a major blow against emotional eating? It's hard to say. The study included only a dozen participants, only four of whom ended up in the final trial with the smart bra prototypes. With such a small sample, it's difficult to know how results may vary.

InformationWeek 500 companies take a practical view of even trendy tech such as cloud, big data analytics, and mobile. Read all about what they're doing in our big new special issue. Also in the InformationWeek 500 issue: A ranking of our top 250 winners; profiles of the top five companies; and 20 great ideas that you can steal. (Free registration required.)

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