Can This Ring Diagnose Your Depression?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Your Fitbit can’t read your mind yet, but it may soon read your emotions.
By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu
While grocery shopping, I explode with white-hot rage. When cooking pasta, I fume with Hulk-like fury. During a stroll through the park, my stress levels are through the roof — or so my ring tells me. It wants me to mellow out and take deep breaths. Who knew a plastic hunk of jewelry could help me stop and smell the roses?
Turns out the $250 bling on my finger — a souped-up, high-tech version of a mood ring called the Moodmetric ring — can do just that. It joins a growing crop of emotion-tracking wearables recently introduced from Helsinki to Palo Alto, all vying to slip onto your hand and wrist to help you find Zen in your busy life. Most of these devices are expected to ship next year. Straight from Finland, my 3D-printed ring uses sensors to track my sympathetic nervous system, body temperature and skin conductivity so I can get a handle on my stress. From New York, the biometric WellBe wristband ($149) measures your heart rate so you can keep tabs on what or who triggers your anxiety. The zirconium Zenta wristband ($249 to $299) from London-based startup Vinaya mines your calendar events, social-media activity, sleep patterns, perspiration rates and menstrual cycle (if you’re a lady) to compose a more holistic picture of your emotional health and well-being.
The hippie-dippie mindfulness doesn’t stop there. These devices come with apps that ping you when you need to take a chill pill, so to speak, in the form of breathing exercises, guided meditation, mood journaling, calming sounds or not-so-subtle reminders to “laugh more” and “be active.” The Fitbit and Apple Watch — major players in the wearables world — track your daily steps and calorie burn, but Moodmetric CEO Niina Venho says that’s just one part of the equation: “People push themselves to their limits all the time.” Happiness is elusive and hard to quantify, and these devices aim to take the guesswork out of the process.
By 2018, the International Data Corporation estimates 213.6 million wearables will be sold worldwide, compared to 11.8 million in 2015. “We want to hack happiness,” says George Eleftheriou, the cofounder and CEO of Sentio Solutions, a Palo Alto–based company that makes the Feel wristband ($199), which Eleftheriou calls “a portable life coach.” His company claims the device can detect five emotions: happy, angry, sad, stressed and satisfied.
How about skeptical? The wearables industry has been a bit of a bust, both with eyewear and fitness trackers. The stock price of Fitbit — an unofficial yardstick for the market — has plunged since peaking a year ago at $51.90. And if you try to dig deeper into the science behind the devices, developers get tight-lipped about their sensors and algorithms. “I can’t disclose much,” WellBe CEO Zach Sivan tells OZY. Neil Sehgal, a researcher at the University of California at San Francisco’s Center for Digital Health Innovation, says that the “largely unregulated space” lacks “robust research” to prove that the metrics these devices track are, in fact, valid and accurate ways to gauge emotion.
In addition, wellness gadgets state the obvious. You may not know how many steps you take every day, but you probably have a good handle on when you’re pissed or down in the dumps. That is to say, I don’t need an effin’ reminder! In fact, some experts claim that measuring happiness causes a heck of a lot more angst. (As I rapidly write this story, my fancy mood ring senses that I’m way above a normal level of stress — 83 on a scale of 0 to 100 — and ought to slow down. Gee, thanks.)
The developers behind these wearables counter that long-term tracking of your emotional state is valuable, enabling you over time to identify patterns that stress you. Hint: It’s either your mom or your boss. Perhaps what makes these wellness devices so appealing is that they tap into a universal obsession: finding the secret to happiness. Some corporations have hired chief happiness officers, while a few governments have benchmarks for happiness, including the U.K.’s National Well-Being Index and Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness. So, even if money can’t buy happiness, our happiness can certainly still be exploited and peddled as a hot commodity. (Depression sold separately.)
Maybe we’re forgetting how to be introspective in a culture saturated with consumerism. If so, the growing wellness tech industry is here to help you rediscover your reflective side. Soon, developers won’t just want to detect your mood; they’ll aim to introduce emotion-tracking wearables into hospitals, clinics and other medical spaces to manage and monitor serious mental illnesses. One day, wellness technology might not even take the form of a ring or a wristband. Instead, it may be embedded in your everyday life. Your clothes may sense when you’re feeling blue; your furniture will know when you’ve got butterflies in your stomach. “The tech will be so ubiquitous,” Vinaya’s Kate Unsworth says, “it will just be like oxygen fading into the background.”
For now, I can only hope this mood ring or my future sofa doesn’t get hacked. God forbid someone finds out I have, gasp, emotions.