Features & Columns

Tech Museum thinks Big
with Body Metrics exhibit

A new exhibit at the Tech Museum, Body Metrics, uses sensors
to track internal body readings that can range from chaotic to zen
GOOD VIBRATIONS: A new exhibit at the Tech Museum, Body Metrics, uses sensors to track internal body readings that can range from chaotic to zen. Photograph by Na'im Beyah

Change is afoot at the Tech Museum. Or a heartbeat away, so to speak. As of right now, the museum is officially moving away from "blockbuster" exhibits and into a new era of homegrown, resourceful, collaborative Silicon Valley-based experiences. In other words, the venue no longer wants to depend on traveling, commercial mega-shows and thus have to justify the remote connections those shows have with a technology museum.

So no more Islamic Science or Genghis Khan. Just forget all that stuff. (I mean, do you even remember those exhibits anyway?

Here's what we're talking about now: drape a custom iPod around your neck. Attach a Somaxis EXG muscle and heart sensor to the skin above your trapezius muscle. Then spend five minutes struggling to put on a wireless NeuroSky EEG headset. Once all of that is accomplished, you enter Body Metrics, the new exhibit at the Tech. From there, you engage in several quick activities while the equipment measures, records, and displays six metrics in real time: activity level, tension, mental focus, talkativeness, attitude, and the number of people in your immediate vicinity.

The activities include jumping up and down, basic yoga poses and a table where multiple parties up to six people can achieve calmness by synchronizing their heartbeats. In that last instance, each person sits at a chair, puts their finger on a mouse-like device and then receives a diagnosis, determining if their heartbeats indicate a "chaotic," "focused," "relaxed," or "zen" state. For me, it was chaotic.

Another section, "Body Moves," takes observer/participants through three large-scale projectors, all measuring their pose, balance, and bounce, during which body position, activity, and range of motion are measured. Still another section, "Digital Reflection," utilizes large-format displays behind half-silvered mirrors in which visitors see their reflections laid over graphic visualizations of all the things they've just done in other parts of the exhibit.

Quite a bit of information can be gleaned from the activities, some of which is measured and viewed on the custom iPod. Participants can see just how composed, stressed out or mentally focused they were at every single part of the exhibit. For example, during the press opening, mayor candidates Dave Cortese and Sam Liccardo took part in the whole shebang, with Cortese suggesting the heartbeat-synchronizing experiment might be interesting during the debates.

When all is said and done, the observer/participant moves over to what looks like the world's largest touchscreen, removes the iPod from his or her neck and plops it down on the screen. From there, one receives a big-data-generated matrix of information and visualizations to work with. Your results are compared to those of other people who just did the same tests. You can see if you're a "team builder," or, in my case, a "floating doer." You can see how many people similarly got stressed out at the yoga poses or even the degree to which the number of other people present affected your mental focus or distraction or stress factors. You can see just which part of the exhibit made you feel the most alone, the most social, or the most schizo.

It's important to note that Body Metrics is more like a software launch than a traditional static museum exhibit, and that's precisely the objective. The more users participate, the more robust the results will become and the more useful the analysis will become. In a Silicon Valley sense, it somewhat blurs the boundary between a museum show, a research methodology, a thinktank presentation and a consumer trade-show booth showcasing yet-to-be-released products. That's not a criticism. That's a compliment, because the exhibit features technology that doesn't exist in the commercial markets yet. Both startups and health care heavyweights contributed research and expertise to make the gadgets involved. Again, this is what I expect from Silicon Valley. In fact, the whole exhibit feels like a mini-startup company, in of itself: Everyone involved seems excited about it behind the scenes, while the rest of the public doesn't quite get it. Yet. And that's a good thing. Genghis Khan would be proud.