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MIT Better World

By Emily Omier

Athina Papadopoulou SM ’14, a PhD candidate in the Department of Architecture’s Design Computation Group, is exploring the intersection of design, computer science, materials, and psychology to see how wearable technology can help people experience spaces differently and regulate their emotional responses.

“Our psychology and behaviors are influenced by our environment,” says Papadopoulou, noting that light, sound, and heat all affect how people feel, a key consideration for designers.

Combining computation and design offers new avenues for supporting mental and physical well-being, says Papadopoulou, who taught a studio class on inclusive design last spring. Students in the class created objects that communicated visual information through other senses to help the blind navigate spaces and experience art. Papadopoulou used programmable materials to help seeing students experience spaces through auditory and tactile senses.

The thread that ties together Papadopoulou’s research projects is a desire to understand how the different senses contribute to our understanding of environments and experiences. Her master’s thesis explored how the experience of a space changes if it’s understood through touch, sound, or sight alone. Her PhD research focuses on what Papadopoulou calls “wearable environments”—how clothing can influence emotions and well-being.

Papadopoulou is developing a wearable sleeve to help people regulate their feelings and support biofeedback. The device, which inflates and applies rhythmic pressure, is programmed based on sensors that measure heart rate, electrical conductance of the skin, breathing rate, and other markers of the user’s psychological state.

Influencing emotions

Research has shown that people who suffer from a range of mental health disorders have trouble processing, expressing, or even recognizing their own emotions. Papadopoulou’s sleeve would help individuals get real-time insights into their physiological state as well as provide a way to influence emotions, especially to promote calmness, through warmth and pressure. “The basic idea is that by synchronizing environments with our bodies, we can enhance well-being,” she says.

Papadopoulou is exploring how this tool can help both with self-awareness and with communicating emotional states. “There are already devices, or suits, that are designed for people with sensory processing disorders,” explains Papadopoulou, a recipient of the Leon Hyzen Fellowship in Architecture. “They are things like a heavy blanket or a squeezable jacket, but they are not customized to the person’s needs. I’m trying to make something that is customizable and can be controlled by the individual.”

The project involves bringing together different disciplines as well as solving a number of challenges. First of all, it was difficult to find the right material for the inflatable sleeve, something that would both work with the sensors and provide the desired experience. “You have all these constraints from the materials,” she says.

Choosing the right hardware was also challenging; it had to be able to work with the material but not be so loud that it would be distracting for the user.

Ultimately, Papadopoulou says, she was able to develop a working prototype and is currently conducting user studies. Papadopoulou is working under the guidance of Terry Knight, the William and Emma Rogers Professor of Design and Computation at MIT; Rosalind Picard SM ’86, ScD ’91, professor of media arts and sciences and director of the MIT Affective Computing research group; Skylar Tibbits SM ’10, the Sherman Fairchild Career Development Associate Professor of Design Research and co-director and founder of the MIT Self-Assembly Lab; and Leah Somerville, a professor of psychology and director of the Affective Neuroscience and Development Laboratory at Harvard University. With the contributions of her advisors and colleagues, Papadopoulou created a user interface from scratch, managing a wireless communication system, handling networking concerns, and programming hardware to operate both the embedded sensors and the pressure controls for the sleeves.

Papadopoulou still hasn’t found a good way to provide real-time sensor feedback, but she expects to eventually meet that challenge with some help from colleagues.

“We always see computation as a very multidisciplinary thing,” Papadopoulou says. “My background is in architecture, other people come from the arts or engineering. Computer science nowadays is a big umbrella, it incorporates all these different fields.”