Bra Sensors Could Monitor Overeating

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Recent studies show that up to half the U.S. population complains that they eat more when they are stressed, a condition that has also led to high rates of obesity -– and often a negative cycle of eating more, gaining weight and then getting stressed out about gaining weight -– especially during Thanksgiving.

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Researchers have been designing new kinds of ways to help anxious overeaters reduce this habit, or at least make them aware of when it’s happening. Along with stress apps for the smartphone and bracelets with special sensors, engineers and designers at Microsoft Research recently invented a stress-busting bra made with special material that monitors the wearers moods and helps to regulate stress eating.

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"It’s mostly women who are emotional overeaters, and it turns out that a bra is perfect for measuring EKG (electrocardiogram)," said Mary Czerwinski, a cognitive psychologist and senior researcher in visualization and interaction at Microsoft. "We tried to do the same thing for men's underwear but it was too far away (from the heart)."

The stress-busting bra was recently tested by a small group of volunteers who were able to get feedback on their moods. Microsoft built the sensor pads with a microprocessor powered by a 3.7-volt battery. It was able to sample up to eight bio-signal channels simultaneously, according to Czerwinski’s research paper, "Food and Mood: Just-in-Time Support for Emotional Eating," which was presented recently at the Society for Affective Computing conference.

The sensors captured heart rate and respiration with an EKG sensor, skin conductance with an electrodermal activity sensor, and movement with an accelerometer and gyroscope. The data was streamed to a smarphone app, as well as stored in the researchers’ computer.

By both recording their own moods on a smartphone app and collecting data from the bra-sensors, the scientists could accurately predict changes in physiology that accompanies eating and stress, including whether the subjects were happy or angry.

The sensor pads were built into each woman’s own bra, but Czerwinski admitted that they only worked for about four hours until they had to recharge the batteries. She's now looking for another part of the body to monitor moods that has similar physiological accuracy, but that doesn’t require as much work.

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