Q-Sensor: The Emotion Detection Sensor

MIT’s Technology Review recently wrote about a new emotion detection sensor that has been developed to “detect and record physiological signs of stress and excitement by measuring slight electrical changes in the skin.”

Known as the Q Sensor, the technology was designed by Affectiva for doctors, caregivers, and patients to observe autistic children’s emotional changes.

Since individuals with autism usually don’t show when they are stressed, their tension can manifest and build until a breakdown occurs, which can result in aggression towards others and physical harm towards themselves. The Q sensor is worn daily in a similar fashion to a wristwatch. It stores and transmits the wearer’s stress levels throughout the day. The data can then be uploaded to a computer via USB, in order to view, compare, and annotate the data (adding descriptions of events during high and low stress periods.)

The sensor works by detecting moisture that collects under the skin when someone is experiencing stress. The rising moisture makes the skin more electronically conductive. The sensors send an electric pulse to one point of the skin, then measures the strength of that signal at another point of the skin to detect its conductivity.

According to Rosalind Picard, cofounder of Affectiva, “having clues to a person’s stress levels, which might not otherwise be detectable, could give caregivers and researchers more insight – and possibly a way to anticipate – the harmful behaviors of autism, such as head banging. Caregivers can try to identify and block sources of stress and learn what activities restore calm.”

Kathy Roberts, founder and executive director of the Giant Steps school (an institute for children with autism in Fairfield, CT) believes that the sensors could potentially reveal information about sleep patterns, and provide early detection for seizures.

One of the caveats with this device is the fact that heightened skin conductance is not necessarily indicative of stress, because it can also occure when someone is excited. Therefore, the information needs to be evaluated and interpreted in context. Since the data needs to be uploaded to a computer at the end of the day (rather than giving feedback in real time,) it would be difficult for a therapist and their patient to sit and figure out what every spike in emotion was connected to.

Even people without autism have difficulty reflecting on their emotions throughout the day. Do you think this data would make a significant difference in the way therapists work with their patients with autism?

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