Using wearable technology to detect conflict in couples before it occurs

Several teams of researchers at USC have joined forces for a study aimed at detecting vital signs to help stem conflicts in couples before they occur. Couples were brought into the lab, equipped with wearable sensors, given smartphones for recording data and sent out on their way.

The study largely took place outside of the lab, with participants filling out an hourly survey to offer insight into their feelings toward their significant others. The team opted not to go out of its way to introduce arguments through external means or touch subject matter, and while not every participant reported an issue during the trial, plenty of issues arose. Because, you know, couples and stuff.

“The fact that we are capturing bio-signals from wearables – this is a source of information we can get from people that we cannot see with the naked eye,” study co-author Theodora Chaspari tells TechCrunch. “It was a pretty useful source of information.”

The wearables, which captured body temperature, heart activity and sweat, were coupled with assessments of audio recordings, used to detect the content and intensity of speech. A machine learning developed by the team was apparently able to capture episodes of conflict with an accuracy rate of up to 86-percent.

“We have a longstanding collaboration between the family studies project in psychology and the SAIL project in engineering,” says lead author Adela C. Timmons. “We were working together a lot to try to process and analyze the large amount of data that we were collecting, and we had this idea of applying machine learning technology to our data set to see if we could detect if conflict was occurring between couples and levels greater than chance.”

The next step in the process is using that machine learning algorithm to help create a model that could help predict conflicts up to five minutes before they occur, using physiological and speech reading. Given the relative level of sophistication in mainstream wearables, the software could potentially be applied to commercial devices to help trackers move beyond fitness to emotional health.

“It’s definitely a harder task to do,” says Chaspari. “It’s something that builds up, physiologically or behaviorally that can lead to a potential conflict.”