Even though people stayed in touch during the pandemic’s stay-at-home orders and social distancing, it was easy to feel out of touch with loved ones.

Technology and the internet have expanded the way humans communicate and added much to that communication. But they can still fall short of being physical with someone.  Fannie Liu, a research scientist at Snap Inc. who earned her PhD from the Human-Computer Interaction Institute in Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer Science commented:

“Our social cues are limited online. We’re exploring a new way to support digital connection through a deeper and more internal cue.”

Photo Credits: Significant Otter

Liu was part of a team from CMU, Snap and the University of Washington that built Significant Otter, an app designed primarily for smartwatches that allow couples to communicate with each other based on their sensed heart rate. The team presented their work this month at the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Computer-Human Interaction (CHI) Conference.

The app allows couples to send animated otters to one another that represent emotions and activities. For example, otters can be sad, excited, calm or angry, or they can be working, exercising, eating or tired. The app senses a person’s heart rate and then suggests otters with the emotion or activity that may correspond to it. A fast heart rate could prompt the app to suggest an excited or angry otter or an otter that is exercising or eating.

The partner can then respond with preset reactions. The reactions aren’t based on the person’s heart rate but are instead designed to give support to the person communicating based on their heart rate. Example reactions include otters hugging, holding each other’s hands or even giving an encouraging thumbs-up.

The team tested the app in April and May 2020 with 20 couples separated by the pandemic and found that the use of biosignals made for easier and more authentic communication. Liu and the team didn’t intend to test the app during the pandemic, but couples who participated in the test said that the app gave them a sense of their partner’s physical state even when they couldn’t be physically together. The app is available to download through Apple’s App Store for iPhone and Apple Watch.

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