Why you should care

Because this goose bump sensor could one day be Facebook’s or Google’s new secret weapon. 

If mood rings and self-help books offer any clue, emotions, even our own, can be tough to decipher. But scientists may be one step closer to finding a way to quantitatively, objectively measure our innermost feelings — precious information that could be used to tailor how we experience everything from movies to our own homes.

Researchers at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) have designed an adhesive, postage stamp-sized sensor that can measure the goose bumps that emerge with sudden changes in body temperature or emotional state — from the sky-high tension of a slasher scene to the euphoria of a perfectly timed beat drop. It was described in the journal Applied Physics Letters in June.

Human emotions will be regarded like any typical biometric information, including body temperature or blood pressure.

Such a device could be a boon for advertising, social media and entertainment companies, which could use the data to produce commercials, movies or music that packs a more potent emotional punch. Software could be paired with emotion sensors to identify which Facebook posts most engage us, yielding information that could be used to suggest products, friends or even romantic partners.

“Human emotions will be regarded like any typical biometric information, including body temperature or blood pressure,” said Young-Ho Cho, a co-author of the study and professor in the Department of Bio and Brain Engineering at KAIST.

A handful of adhesive sensors that measure emotional response through changes in the skin’s surface already exist. One detects subtle vibrations as the heart pumps blood through the blood vessels, which pulse against the skin. The problem is that the sensors tend to be stiff and bulky. Cho’s is thinner than a strand of hair and made of polymer, a stretchy, plastic-like material that conforms to the contours of the skin.

How it works: When goose bumps form (a process known as “piloerection”), they reshape the tiny, normally flat electrode coils embedded in the sensor, decreasing the amount of charge, or capacitance, they contain. The lower the capacitance, the higher the number and intensity of goose bumps. A computer plots capacitance on a graph, with sharp dips indicating piloerection.

Privacy issues abound, especially if social media companies collect emotional data.

Cho and his team tested the sensor on an adult male volunteer as he grabbed a bunch of ice cubes. Sure enough, they saw goose bumps appear at the same time as the sensor detected them.

Of course, the research team needs to repeat the test on more subjects and correlate physical measurements of goose bumps with emotional states. And some experts remain wary of the device’s use as an emotion sensor. Although Cho envisions creative types using it to elicit stronger emotional responses to their work, Bernie Hogan, a research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, believes it’ll simply boost “the most primal forms of arousal rather than something more complex and enduring.” And privacy issues abound, especially if social media companies collect emotional data.

Beyond measuring emotions, Cho hopes his sensor can help make the technology in our lives smarter. For example, homeowners could wear sensors for goose bumps, as well as skin temperature and sweating, which could be used instead of ambient temperature to calibrate their AC system — a technology that could debut in as few as two years. But developing systems that respond to emotions will take much more time.

Quantitatively measuring emotions through goose bumps remains a compelling — and somewhat chilling — possibility. Either way, you might want to prepare for more touchy-feely moments.

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