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New lab aims to de-stress technology use

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While technological devices like cell phones and laptops are ubiquitous in Silicon Valley, they can create stress for frequent users — a problem that the members of Stanford’s Calming Technology Lab (CTL) are currently working to solve.

According to CTL Director Neema Moraveji Ph.D. ’12, the lab’s purpose is to “invent, study and implement technologies” that can induce calm in at least one of three areas — cognition, emotion and physiology.

The students and faculty who work at the lab run experiments on technology use that range from simulating the calming presence of nature through high-resolution images to tracking the way people breathe while using a computer.

“We’ve found that just using a computer activates the fight or flight response,” Moraveji said. “So just by using the computer all day, it’s kind of tiring.”

Moraveji created the lab in December 2010 while working on his dissertation about human-computer interactions at the Graduate School of Education. As part of his dissertation, Moraveji designed Breathwear, a sensor that tracks breathing patterns and can notify the user through a mobile device when he or she is becoming stressed.

“I dropped everything when I realized that what I really wanted to do was change the way the world breathes,” Moraveji said.

Breathwear, which Moraveji expects will be available on the commercial market in late 2013 or early 2014, is one of about a dozen projects that the CTL has created or is in the process of designing.

The lab’s other projects include Mail0, a calming email client that monitors email checking habits to help the user reach an empty inbox at the end of each day, and Morphine Drip, which helps athletes manage pain and stress through SMS mechanisms.

Mahmoud Saadat M.S. ’09 Ph.D. ’17, a hardware designer for CTL, noted that the lab’s product development process often involves brainstorming sessions and described the researchers’ discussions in the preliminary stages of Mail0 as particularly interesting.

“They talked about [email] and how we can redesign it in a calm way, to reduce the stress and leverage a very good user interface to have a calm environment for users,” Saadat said.

Researchers and designers at the lab represent a variety of disciplines, including computer science, mechanical engineering, psychology and symbolic systems. Moraveji described that diversity as crucial to the lab’s success.

“I think the reason that we’re able to create this lab is because it’s not just an idea that I like,” Moraveji said. “It’s an idea that is resonating with a lot of different people.”

The CTL has also collaborated with students in the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (d.school) through a class called d.compress: Designing Calm, where students can work with companies to improve their current products and design new forms of calming technology.

“We study how technology creates stress for us,” Moraveji said. “We do calming exercises as part of the class, we meditate in class — it’s part of the design process.”

One of the challenges that students in the course tackled was how to reduce the stress associated with using Gmail, as CTL Lead Strategist Stephanie Habif noted that the information overload created by email can be “a big problem.”

“To be able to evolve the domain of calming technology is really special and a wonderful opportunity that we’re really grateful for,” Habif said. “It seems like the right place to do the work.”

According to Moraveji, enrollment in the class doubled from last year, with more students taking an interest in both developing and using calming technologies.

“The further along society evolves, the more acknowledgement there is for… [the idea that] it’s not always [true] that more is better,” Moraveji said. “Technology’s not disappearing, so we need to do something else. Sometimes you have to create new technology.”

Moraveji predicted that future product designers will begin to consider how their technology can affect a user emotionally or cognitively, an approach largely missing from the market today.

“Now there’s a value put in place on how that [technology] makes me feel, how that technology makes me perform better, love better and build better friendships and a deeper life and more meaningful life,” Moraveji said.