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Alter your work environment to suit your mood—without ever leaving your desk

You are where you work—virtually, at least. A new project at the MIT Media Lab is examining how much your environment influences your mood, behavior, sleep, health—even your capacity for creativity. And it’s fine-tuning ways for individuals to control and change that environment. The project is called Mediated Atmosphere and is the work of the Media Lab’s Responsive Environments group, which focuses on augmenting and mediating human experience, interaction, and perception using sensor networks.

In a time of declining worker satisfaction, researchers on the project are hoping to enhance wellbeing and productivity in the workplace by improving each individual’s personal workplace atmosphere. With biosensors, lighting, image projection, and sound, the group is creating immersive environments designed to help users focus, de-stress, and do their best work.

MIT Media Lab's Mediated Atmosphere Project

Atmospheric Scene: Forest Photo credit: Nan Zhao

The idea is that, during the course of the workday, we are likely to be inspired by different environments. The studious quiet of a grand library might motivate us as we settle in to research. Or we might need a break after a stressful meeting by virtually strolling along a path beside a stream. Media Lab researcher Nan Zhao noticed that most lighting solutions, wireless speakers, and home automation platforms lack a multimodal quality to synchronize light, sound, images, fragrances, and temperature. She also noted the paucity of research on the impact of atmospheric scenes on cognition and behavior.

Zhao drew on what little existing research she could find that explored the positive effects of natural views and sounds on mental state as well as the effects of light and sound on mood, alertness, and memory. During that research, she came to realize that any given environmental stimulus will have a very different effect on different people. As individual as our reactions are to specific environments, however, she also concluded that each of us needs rich, absorbing, but predictable places to visit in the course of a day, places that are fascinating and give us a feeling of having changed our surroundings.

The study of 29 users offered five different ambient scenes, ranging from forest streams to bustling coffee shops, measuring how the environment influenced participants’ ability to focus and bounce back from stress. Using nonintrusive biosensors, the research team learned each worker’s activity, work habits, and physiological or behavioral reactions to environmental changes. Building on data from realistic work scenarios, the team then created personalized response models to synchronize the workspace experience with the ever-changing requirements of workers.

Mediated Atmosphere uses a frameless screen (designed with a special aspect ratio so it doesn’t feel like watching TV), a custom lighting network, speaker array, video projection, and wearable biosignal sensors. The team can label what specific atmospheric scenes mean for the user and learn how to automatically trigger a change in environment based on their responses. Looking ahead, the team envisions more complex applications that would use ambiance to strengthen memory and enhance learning activities.

“We want to create an environment player that can recommend or automate your space similar to how Spotify or Pandora gives you access to a world of music,” Zhao says. “We want to help people to manage their days by giving them the right place at the right time.”

Read the related story in MIT News.

Watch the Mediated Atmosphere video.