‘Significant Otter’ helps couples communicate better through heart-monitoring app

PITTSBURGH, Pa. — Want to send that special someone a message straight from your heart? Scientists have created an app that can literally tell your partner how you’re feeling without uttering a single word.

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University say the Significant Otter app can actually provide couples with a more meaningful way of communicating than using emojis, GIFs, and memes. Designed mainly for smartwatch users, the app monitors the wearer’s heart rate and then tries to gauge their emotional state by the results. Users can then send those real-time feelings to their significant other in the form of a friendly, animated otter.

significant otter app
The Significant Otter app allows couples to send animated otters to one another that represent emotions and activities based on their heartrate. (Credit: Carnegie Mellon University)

“Our social cues are limited online,” says Fannie Liu, a graduate of CMU and research scientist at Snap Inc. in a university release. “We’re exploring a new way to support digital connection through a deeper and more internal cue.”

Once the app measures a person’s sensed heart rate, it provides the wearer with a choice of otters to send. For example, if the app detects a fast heart rate, Significant Otter may suggest sending an excited or angry otter. However, they can also send an exercising or eating otter if that’s what’s really pushing their heart rate up.

In return, the person’s partner can reply with an otter which provides them with support depending on the various heartbeat readings. These reactions include hugging otters, otters holding hands, and otters giving a thumbs up.

Significant Otter gets a significant test during the pandemic

Researchers from CMU, Snap, and the University of Washington started testing the app in April 2020 with 20 couples. Little did they know the coronavirus pandemic would provide the perfect environment to see how people keep connected to their loved ones when they have to keep their social distance.

The results reveal using bio-signals, like heart rate, made it easier for the couples to share more authentic communication while in quarantine. The participants reported that Significant Otter allowed them to have a sense of their loved one’s well-being even if they couldn’t be physically together.

“It’s coming from your heart,” Liu concludes. “It can be a very intimate gesture to see or feel someone’s heartbeat. It’s a signal that you’re living.”

Researchers presented their invention at the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Computer-Human Interaction (CHI) Conference.

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