Xin Liu, Hongxin Zhang

 When the body senses itself internally and localizes its actions, it provides the basis for a material sense of self-existence. At the same time, the mind registers the sense of an agency with free will, the sense of being, the cause of voluntary action. Among all interoceptive experiences, respiration is the only one that we can regulate directly. There are many psychophysical breathing exercises to help self-regulation and reflection, that, combined with meditation and yoga, are designed to restore natural, smooth breathing appropriate to the physical needs of the body. 

Masque is a psychoacoustic system that manipulates the user’s perception of their own respiration by providing false auditory feedback. By deliberately misrepresenting the wearer’s sense of their own breathing, Masque can cause bias in behavioral and cognitive experiences without any explicit instructions or stimuli. Users hear synchronized respiration sound from Masque as their own and react naturally to the synthetic body signals.

Masque uses a digital temperature sensor chip (TSY01, TE Connectivity) for its fast data acquisition and high resolution (0.1°C) to sense respiration. The sensor measures the temperature right in front of the nostril at a frequency of 43Hz to detect the exhaling and inhaling activity of the user.  

With high precision and fast speed temperature sensor, Masque detects the user's breathing activities and plays back a mediated breathing sound synchronously through a bone conduction headphone. The mediated breathing sound is real-time synthesized, thus its breathing rate can be modified by the user at any moment.

The design of Masque draws inspiration from Italian carnival masks. For critics of Commedia dell’Arte, there was a direct connection between covering one’s face and hiding one’s heart. The visual language of the mask originates in Cesare Pipa's Compendium Iconologia (1593), where the Fravde is presented as a monstrous two-headed creature. In one hand he holds a flaming, broken heart—in the other, a mask. The visual design implies the inherent tension between self-control and self-disguise in the device.  Making use of its 3D printed, rigid-flexible structure , the design also learnt from Miriam Simun's smelling device for placing the sensing node in front of users' nose. 

Fravde - Cesare Pipa's Compendium Iconologia

Miriam Simun's smelling device

In the end, Xin Liu and industrial designer HongXin (Sean) Zhang landed on this final version that carefully conceals all the electronics—including bone conduction transducer, respiration sensor, and wires—inside a curved structure.

Our Studies

We conducted two user studies on Masque, in which we observed that users easily mistook the false breathing feedback sound as their actual respiration, and showed quantifiable changes in their behaviors in both stress and sexual attraction scenarios. 

Stress Study

In the Stress Study, the participants were asked to work on a GRE test within a shortened duration, before and after which we took their state-trait anxiety scores for comparison. 
We observed a statistically significant difference (p =.048) in terms of changes in anxiety between the groups who heard two different rates of breathing. In other words, those who heard the fast and loud false respiration feedback tended to feel more anxious after the GRE test.

Attraction Study

We recruited twelve heterosexual, male participants in the study. They were each shown fourteen photos (publicly available) of women for 30 seconds and asked to rate each picture on the following characteristics: attractive, exciting, and friendly.

The results showed the misattribution of arousal effect for physical attraction among the participants. They rate the pictures as more attractive when they hear a fast and loud respiration sound "from themselves."

The detailed study descriptions and results can be found in the chapter five of Xin Liu's master thesis: Inward to Outward

Masque presents a technical solution consisting of a psychoacoustic wearable interface that provides false feedback of respiratory signals and has an effect on cognitive performance. It forms a basis for a larger effort to design a body signal feedback system that changes how we perceive and connect with ourselves. By alternating various feedback patterns, we can foresee the potential of false feedback technology in areas such as emotion regulation, self-awareness, and wellbeing.

Frequently Asked Questions

  1. Can Masque manipulate people?
  2. What is misattribution of arousal?
  3. Why did you only have male participants in the Attraction Study?
  4. What is the future plan for Masque?
  1. Can Masque manipulate people?

    No, not entirely. Masque causes cognitive bias in people's behaviors. Just like sometimes we have less patience when we're hungry or get excited after drinking coffee, Masque shadows daily activities with a pre-context rather than direct those activities.

  2. What is misattribution of arousal?

    Misattribution of arousal is a term in psychology which describes the process whereby people make a mistake in assuming what is causing them to feel aroused. Studies have demonstrated that a person experiencing a racing heart rate induced by exercise (White and Kight, "Misattribution of arousal and attraction: Effects of salience of explanations for arousal," 1984) or fear (White, Fishbein, and Rutsein, 1981) could conflate that sensation with sexual attraction. The male subject standing in the middle of the high-altitude bridge attributes a stronger impression and even romantic preferences towards the female partner due in part to the feelings the bridge induces on the male. White has an explanation for this phenomenon: the experience of heart racing and intense breath caused by fear is similar to the physiological responses under the condition of sexual arousal.

  3. Why did you only have male participants in the Attraction Study?

    We are very aware that it is incomplete that the study is only designed around heterosexual male participants. There are several reasons for this decision: The existing literature and previous research around misattribution of sexual arousal have only presented experiments with heterosexual, male participants. I conducted a pilot study in which five female participants are asked to rate videos of male counterparts. However, the pilot results are inconclusive. We need another research topic to construct the basic foundation of the study around female participants or homosexual participants. Due to limited time and resources, we decided to focus on heterosexual, male participants as the first study group.

  4. What is the future plan for Masque?

    Masque is one of the projects in which we examine the perception of self and part of Xin Liu's thesis, Inward to Outward. As an artist in practice, Xin Liu sees the knowledge of this thesis permeate her on-going work, and will be a starting point of many participatory art installations and performances.