Affective computing vs. affective placebo: Study of a biofeedback-controlled game for relaxation training
Authors: Chittaro L., Sioni R.
Published in: International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 72(8-9), August-September 2014, pp. 663-673.
Abstract: Relaxation training is an application of affective computing with important implications for health and wellness. After detecting user’s affective state through physiological sensors, a relaxation training application can provide the user with explicit feedback about his/her detected affective state. This process (biofeedback) can enable an individual to learn over time how to change his/her physiological activity for the purposes of improving health and performance. In this paper, we provide three contributions to the field of affective computing for health and wellness. First, we propose a novel application for relaxation training that combines ideas from affective computing and games. The game detects user’s level of stress and uses it to influence the affective state and the behavior of a 3D virtual character as a form of embodied feedback. Second, we compare two algorithms for stress detection which follow two different approaches in the affective computing literature: a more practical and less costly approach that uses a single physiological sensor (skin conductance), and a potentially more accurate approach that uses four sensors (skin conductance, heart rate, muscle activity of corrugator supercilii and zygomaticus major). Third, as the central motivation of our research, we aim to improve the traditional methodology employed for comparisons in affective computing studies. To do so, we add to the study a placebo condition in which user’s stress level, unbeknown to him/her, is determined pseudo-randomly instead of taking into account his/her physiological sensor readings. The obtained results show that only the feedback presented by the single-sensor algorithm was perceived as significantly more accurate than the placebo. If the placebo condition were not included in the study, the effectiveness of the two algorithms would have instead appeared similar. This outcome highlights the importance of using more thorough methodologies in future affective computing studies.
Copyright: © Elsevier 2014. This is the author's version of the publication. The original publication is available at