New device makes it easier to study body language

by Berit Svenson | 4/13/18 2:30am

Did you know that the amount of space you leave between yourself and others during conversations indicates your attitude toward those conversations? A collaborative effort from researchers at multiple universities has created a device that measures non-verbal cues in social interactions, such as distance from others and body angle.

A research team from Dartmouth, Maastricht University, the University of Cambridge and the University of Nottingham has developed a device that measures interaction proxemics — how humans use space during social interactions — to analyze body language. The wearable device, called “Protractor,” resembles a typical corporate access badge and utilizes infrared light to send and receive signals.

According to computer science professor and research team member Xia Zhou, Protractor has the capacity to help researchers study interpersonal interactions in collaborative environments.

Body distance and relative orientation, which are measured by Protractor, are important factors in interpersonal interactions according to computer science Ph.D. student and research team member Zhao Tian. The device enables researchers to use the gathered data to draw conclusions about users’ body language, Tian said.

“[Protractor] can help us deepen our understanding of interaction patterns and see how they are correlated with stress, anxiety and productivity,” Zhou said.

Prior to the inception of this device, researchers used cameras to study people’s interaction patterns, Zhou said. She noted that this method was more “invasive and computationally intensive” due to the work necessary to analyze the video footage.

“[Protractor] is a more lightweight approach to sensing your face-to-face interactions without having cameras around,” she said. “Every user just needs to wear the badge, and then the badge can automatically monitor how you are interacting with others.”

After creating Protractor, the team conducted various experiments to test the application of the device. One of the tests involved 16 groups, each comprised of four people, working together on “The Marshmallow Challenge,” in which participants aimed to build the tallest structure using only spaghetti, tape, string and one marshmallow. Each participant wore the lightweight badge during the activity. Through this study, the researchers were able to examine users’ body language, as well as identify a participant’s task role and determine which stage of the project they were working on.

“We have collaborated with our colleagues from other universities who are experts in business management,” Tian said. “They have helped us analyze the data in the study to determine the roles of users and stage of the task.”

Through application of the device, social scientists will be able to observe people’s interactions in a “more automatic way,” according to Cambridge computer science Ph.D. student and research team member Alessandro Montanari.

Social interactions such as job interviews, doctor-patient communication and corporate team activities can be improved by using the device to study people’s non-verbal behavior, Montanari said.

Companies have expressed interest in deploying the device to monitor their employees’ interactions, according to Tian. He added that the research team is currently working on improving the design of the device to make it more appealing for people to wear at work.