Faced with ongoing social isolation, a turbulent economic climate, and continued uncertainty about when life will return to a simulacrum of normalcy—and what that normal will even look like—many adults are exhibiting mounting signs of clinical anxiety and depression during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
As the world’s public health and economic crises give rise to a mental health one, researchers are exploring a bevy of innovative solutions to help people monitor and regulate their emotions. Case in point: Researchers at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, recently created a new app that users can download to keep tabs on their mental well-being. The app analyzes data like users’ voice recordings, keystrokes, and sleep patterns.
This is part and parcel of a larger trend: Thanks to new advances in technology, human emotions are becoming increasingly measurable and quantifiable. From emotion-sensing robots to cars with sensors to digital wristbands, the field of emotion detection technologies is blossoming, with forecasters projecting that the market size will surge from $21.6 billion in 2019 to $56 billion by 2024.
Emotions are a powerful force in how we relate to the world and how we make life’s everyday decisions—as well as the most consequential ones—which is why innovation in this space is so welcome, both in times of crisis and beyond.
Some of the biggest advances in the field build on more elementary forms of detecting emotions, from measuring the (largely uncontrollable and unconscious) changes in our speech patterns to monitoring biomarkers like heart rate variability to gauge our stress levels.
Of course, measuring emotions is highly complex, and given how subjective and multifaceted they are, quantitative measurements will never entirely displace the qualitative element of evaluating and describing what we’re thinking and feeling. But if used correctly, emotion-sensing technologies can help transform our well-being by empowering individuals to better understand, monitor, and regulate their feelings—and a diverse array of innovative startups are hard at work making this vision a reality.
These five companies offer an inspiring look at what’s possible.
Healium, founded in 2013, utilizes augmented and virtual reality and wearable technology to enable users to “see their feelings.” Biofeedback collected by an Apple Watch or an EEG headband (a device that monitors the brain’s electrical activity) is transmitted to an app where users see their feelings in the form of butterflies flying in front of backgrounds of users’ choosing, like a tranquil field or a soothing beach.
The empirically backed idea behind the project? Visualizing our feelings using virtual reality can help us keep calm and better manage anxiety and stress. Peer-reviewed studies have found that Healium reduced anxiety and increased positive affect in users. Among the app’s users is the U.S. Navy.
Founded in 2018, Reflect Innovation, a Joy Ventures portfolio company, has developed a portable interactive textile product that utilizes biofeedback to help people become aware of their emotional state and experience moments of calm. The product’s light changes color in response to signals from the user’s body, helping them gain control of their emotions. Reflect founder Noga Sapir combined her passions for neuroscience and textile design to create this tool—a contrast to the many tech solutions on the market that feature hard surfaces and screens.
HeartMath’s Inner Balance sensor for iPhone and Android measures heart rhythm patterns to gauge users’ emotional states with an app that also includes guided meditations, real-time coaching tips, and journaling. The app is designed to help users regulate their heart rhythms and mental well-being to achieve a state of “coherence,” characterized by reduced stress, increased resilience, and better overall emotional health.
The company points to more than 300 peer-reviewed or independent studies that support its technologies and techniques, and has worked to broaden access to its solution during the pandemic. In April and May, HeartMath waived registration costs for its program, and the company recently added six new languages due to high demand.
Digital health company Sonde Health measures the human voice as a vital sign and predictor of conditions including depression, hypertension, sleepiness, and respiratory illness. Smartphones, laptops, smart watches, tablets, and smart speakers track vocal patterns and detect changes in health, enabling preventive, proactive self-care.
In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, the company introduced a new tool, Sonde One, which uses a six-second sample of users’ voices to detect respiratory problems. To bring the solution to market, Sonde partnered with the wellness company Wellworks for You, making the tool available for its 1.4 million members.
Launched in 2015, Feel combines cognitive behavioral therapy with a digital wristband that quantifies users’ emotional states based on biomarkers. The Feel app connects users to real-time insights and proven interventions, including mood journaling and breathing exercises. Fifteen-minute weekly sessions with licensed therapists provide people the chance to discuss their emotional states with a designated professional.
According to data from Sentio Solutions, which developed Feel, usage has spiked during the coronavirus pandemic, with users spending 50% more time per week on the app and 97% participation in weekly therapy sessions.
The future of emotion tracking
These companies offer only a taste of the possibilities emotion-sensing technologies hold. Robust analysis of the emotional aspect of dreams (as opposed to their content) is another underdeveloped and exciting field. And technologies that analyze facial expressions or that detect sexual attraction may well hit the market in the coming years.
Innovative companies and cutting-edge startups have a vital role to play in developing this field, as do science and research. Already slated for dramatic growth prior to COVID-19, the emotion detection market is more vital than ever. As we learn more about how we process and experience emotions—and as entrepreneurs tap new opportunities based on the latest science and research—inspiring new products will help us all live more joyfully.
Miri Polachek is CEO of Joy Ventures.