Empathy hat: Wearing your heart on your head

Since October I’ve been preoccupied with thinking about empathy, how to facilitate it between people and how to express it especially in digital environments.

The idea for an ‘empathy hat’ was born after a discussion with a colleague in Project CEDE (Creating and Exploring Digital Empathy) about how comfortable people would be to show how they are really feeling. How open do we want to be about our feelings? Facial expressions are easy to regulate and so are words, but physiological reactions are less easy to manipulate. Pulse is one of the signals expressing how a person is feeling.

I thought that a device displaying a physiological raw signal related to emotions would be an interesting thing to test. “But what does it have to do with empathy?”, I hear you ask. It is about showing others how excited (stressed or delighted, depending on the context) the wearer is, and that way helping others empathise with the person.

The empathy hat I made is a prototype of wearable technology that helps to communicate how the wearer is feeling. A pulse sensor is attached to the earlobe and the LED lights on the hat show the pulse.

The LED lights are controlled with a LilyPad Arduino board, which is connected to the pulse sensor. The board is powered with a Li-ion battery nicked from a mobile phone (which happened to be rattling around the office), although one could also use a 3.7V Li-Po battery straight from a shop. The basic code for the pulse sensor was provided on GitHub by the producers and I modified it for use with the LilyPad and the lights. The circuit is sewn with conductive yarn, so that it is comfortable to wear and does not require soldering, although I am eventually going to solder the pulse sensor to the board.

I crocheted the hat with very thick grey and red acrylic yarn, with a 12mm thick crochet hook. The choice of thick yarn was to make it quick to crochet, but reflecting on it afterwards has made me realise that either it would have been better to make it with thinner yarn or with more pointy LED lights. That way the lights would be more visible.

The hat is yet to make its debut in the real world outside the office, so I don’t know whether the hat will facilitate empathy in everyday context. Making the hat was a lot of fun and has inspired me to start planning another ‘wearable’ project using sensors. The possibilities are endless!