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Microsoft’s Stress-Detecting Bra Attempts to Curb Emotional Eating

Raz Godelnik
| Thursday December 12th, 2013 | 0 Comments

prototype-bra-microsoftYou might think that the most interesting news coming from Microsoft these days is about who will be the next CEO, campaigns to limit NSA surveillance of users or free versions of Windows Phone and Windows RT being offered to device manufacturers.

But, no, their foray into wearable technology, specifically a stress-detecting bra, takes the cake. It’s not that the tech giant is suddenly interested in entering the lingerie business – Microsoft is  more interested in what can be placed in the bra – a sensor system “that monitors the wearers moods and helps to regulate stress eating.”

The idea, Microsoft researchers explain in a recently presented paper, is to use wearable technology to support behavior modification in health. More specifically, the company is “focused on building a persuasive system for behavior modification around emotional eating.” This system includes physiological sensors placed into women’s brassieres that can detect changes in emotions and report them to the wearer through a phone app in order to help them avoid emotional eating.

In other words, Microsoft is exploring the intersection of smart technology with health behavior change. While the idea sounds promising given the market opportunities in this field and the company’s capabilities, the stress-detecting bra still lacks what it needs to become a successful product.

But before we look into the bra’s chances to succeed let’s try to figure out what’s behind it. The researchers explain what we all probably know too well: “we eat not just because we are hungry and craving nutrients but also for a host of emotional and habitual reasons.” They use the term “emotional eating” to describe this sort of eating and point out that it has negative impacts, including contribution to obesity. After all, when we’re stressed we look for ice cream to relax, not baby carrots, right?

So the idea was to design an intervention tool that will help stressed people to reduce their emotional eating habit by making them aware that they’re in a stress mode. In order to do that you need a device that will be able to detect stress and that’s where the smart bra comes in.

The system placed in the bra includes sensor pads with a microprocessor powered by a small battery that can sample up to eight bio-signal channels simultaneously. The sensors track the user’s heart rate, respiration, skin conductance, and movement, which can provide an indication for different stressful emotions that lead to emotional eating. The data is streamed to a smartphone app, which then alerts users about their mood changes.

In a way Microsoft researchers are trying to develop a “nudge,” which Prof. Richard Thaller, behavioral economist who co-authored a book by this name, describes as “some small feature of the environment that attracts our attention and alters our behavior.” Yet, I suspect that this bra on its own might not be effective as a nudge.

That’s because this intervention is based mainly on the assumption that additional information will help people curb their emotional eating. The idea is that if we know we’re stressed out and at risk for emotional eating, we may be able to avoid it.  The problem is that the rational approach is not always effective.

Microsoft researchers can check it with a former colleague – Adam Bosworth – who also headed up Google’s effort to develop electronic health records. Bosworth moved on later to launch Keas, a startup that partners with companies to promote employee health and wellness. As Kevin Werbach and Dan Hunter write their book ‘For the Win: How Game Thinking Can Revolutionize Your Business,’ the company initially focused on presenting users with clear and compelling data about their health. Bosworth’s initial approach was that “if people could only see just how their choices about diet and exercise affected their bodies they would be bound to respond.”

But as much sense as it makes, it just didn’t work out. “No matter how compelling the data Keas presented, people couldn’t get out of their established habits,” Werbach and Hunter write. Keas managed to succeed only when it began adopting gamification tactics and developed wellness gaming programs, where participant teams compete for reward based on a combination of sustained effort and learning how to be healthier.

The key is that information is not sufficient by itself to modify behavior. We learned the same lesson from experiments that list calorie counts on menus – they turned out to have little to no impact on diner choices. And as Futerra’s CEO Lucy Shea points out, smokers not only know very well the risks of smoking, but they actually overestimate them. Nevertheless, it doesn’t stop them from smoking.

This is why even a sophisticated device like the stress-detecting bra needs to be part of a more holistic approach that will tap into people’s intrinsic motivators in order to succeed. As Werbach and Hunter point out “activities that address people’s needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness tend to be absorbing, interesting, and fun, regardless of the context.”

In other words, if Microsoft finds out  how to complement its bra and app with behavior change tactics (see Futerra’s ideas for example) it has the chance to succeed. Without behavior change, I doubt if even this wonder-bra can stop women from putting their hands on chunky cookies or chocolate when stressed.

Last but not least, if you wonder what about a similar solution for men – Mary Czerwinski, a cognitive psychologist and senior researcher in visualization and interaction at Microsoft told Discovery news that “it’s mostly women who are emotional overeaters.” However, she added “we tried to do the same thing for men’s underwear but it was too far away (from the heart).”

I suspect that if Microsoft can develop Kramer’s idea for the bro and make a stress-detecting men-bra, they could double their market. Well, maybe this one will have to wait for the next CEO.

[Image credit: University of Rochester/Microsoft Research]

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris and an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and Parsons The New School for Design, teaching courses in green business, sustainable design and new product development. You can follow Raz on Twitter.


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