How can biofeedback technology impact and influence stress-releasing properties in surfaces and environments?

February 2022

Well-being has become an ever-expanding area and market for both the public and private sector, creating an exciting new field of exploration and research for designers. Even in the pre-Covid era (2019) almost 1,3 million Dutch people were experiencing symptoms of professional burn-out. And up to 44% of employees in the Netherlands believe their employers need to take more measures to reduce stress. When people burn out they are already past the point of no return in many ways and it can take up to a year to get well again, sometimes longer. It’s during the phase or state people are in before burn out, that period when they are experiencing stress but not overwhelmed by it, that they are best placed to take action and make changes.

The research we do as A+N research and design studio aims to develop interior products that are proven to contribute to individual health and happiness. We focus on the perception of stress in working and living environments, while investigating components of that environment that can induce stress-reducing effects and relaxations. By incorporating these elements into walls or installations we create sensory experiences, with interactive options, that offer the same regenerative impact as a power nap. The reason this renewed energy is so important is that our brain capacity functions like a battery. Every time we use our brain to do a job or a task, the battery gets a little emptier. To recharge our brains we need moments of rest or a boost. If we don’t take this time to recharge, the battery goes into the red, stops working and we end up in a burn-out.

As a design practice we consciously play with the external influence of surfaces by using them almost subliminally in a space. Perception is present throughout the foreground and background and the individual experience is enhanced by triggering certain stimuli. This balance, based on Adaptation Level Theory, states that human beings function better when receiving optimal combinations of high and low level stimuli, such as in nature. Something that slightly moves or makes a sound and does not need immediate attention or a reaction is ideal. This is known as Attention Restoration Theory. Think of the wind blowing through the leaves, or ripples cascading across the surface of a lake, or maybe even of fish swimming and making little bubbles in an aquarium (this is called the Aquarium effect). Seeing, hearing or feeling these ever-so slight and soft stimuli serves to keep our brain active without us having to think or even notice, while at the same time producing an undeniable state of serenity.

Bio Mirror

Bio Mirror is an ongoing project in which we collaborate with environmental psychologist Renske Bongers and the Technical Universities of Eindhoven and Delft (TU Delft and TU/e) to explore how biofeedback technology can be applied in daily life. As part of the Enrichers initiative that we co-founded, we launched a project to explore how environments affect human psychology through research-based design. During a study trip to Cambridge University a few years ago we set up a field lab in Professor Jenny Morton's Neurobiology Department and tested the influence of the five stimuli (motor, visual, somatosensory, circadian rhythms and cognition) on the office environment. The research showed us that the environment you work in, the target audience for that environment and the task at hand are the three main factors that determine which combination of stimuli are needed to influence behaviour.

There are three installations within the Bio Mirror project that are currently being developed: the Deep Breathing tool, Surface of Sound and Dangling Mirror. These installations are part of our ongoing research into stress releasing properties and components.

Deep Breathing Tool

The deep breathing tool is a biofeedback wall installation that uses heart and breathing rates to create oscillating paper patterns. The way the paper patterns move make it easy for people to follow the breathing rhythm that’s shown. By bringing these measurements to life in a tangible way the installation encourages you to slow down, breathe more deeply and relax.

Surface of Sound

Surface of Sound is an interactive installation that reaches out to the senses and encourages exploration of the environment. Upon getting close or even gently touching this 3D surface, various sounds are revealed and the installation comes to life kind of like an instrument being played between viewer and object. The activation of these senses works as a release from the never-ending treadmill of work and allows the person to re-enter the professional space with a refreshed and energized perspective. By using touch, sight and sound, a restorative and uplifting experience is created.

Dangling Mirror

Dangling Mirror is a mesmerizing piece with shimmering lights reflected from small mirrors and moving patterns created by airflow that look like falling drops leaving circles in water. By creating the sort of soft stimuli we like to look at but don’t have to think about, our thoughts are allowed to wander off, our mind is given a break and we feel recharged. Dangling Mirror is an installation intended for use in the background, meaning that it is there but doesn’t require any interaction.

Working at the intersection of technology, craft and research, Alissa+Nienke (A+N) develop and create signature walls, innovative surfaces and enriching environments that aim to enhance wellbeing. By applying technologies in a gentle and tactile way, the studio adds value to the environments we spend most of our time in, adding softness to what is an increasingly digital and digitalized world.

A+N Dangling Mirror
A+N, Bio Mirror; photography Ronald Smits
A+N Biomirror; credit Roos Pierson
A+N BioMirror; photograph by Floor Knaapen
Dangling Mirror; photo by A+N.
A+N Visual BioMirror
This article appeared in DAM80. Order your personal copy.