IXD 2020 thesis | Emily carr


An art installation where people create a collaborative and interactive visualization of their heartbeats.

It aims to explore how we can use our biometric data in more meaningful ways to create social connections.
4th Year Interaction Design Thesis
for Emily Carr University
September 2019 - April 2020 (6 Months)
Researcher, Programmer, UX/UI Designer, Graphic Designer
How can we use biometric data in more meaningful ways for social connection?

Problem Space
click to enlarge

Current Usage of Biometrics

Biometrics are biological measurements used to identify living beings. These can be biometric data like our fingerprints, irises, faces that are static, but they can also be dynamic like our heartbeats, temperature, and brain waves.

These biometrics are taken by the technologies that we use everyday, like facial recognition to unlock our phones and fingerprint recognition to go through airport security.

Biometric technologies have made identification of people way easier, but they also categorize us into databases, and create separation in people, identities, and the connections we have with one another.

So how can we use biometric data in more meaningful ways for social connection?

The Interconnection of Our Pulses: InterPulse

With that being said, my thesis examines how we can use biometric data, specifically our heartbeats, as an instrument for social connection. The user has the power to change the visualizations using their heartbeats, emphasizing that simply being alive and existing has an impact on the world we live in. In that sense, this project uses biometrics to show the interconnections of our existences.
"You are an aperture through which the universe is looking at and exploring itself."
- Alan Watts
In this quote, Watt explains how we are all connected and all part of nature. We are all part of something very vast that it can makes us feel minuscule, but from our minuscule field of vision, our different values, beliefs, and experiences of reality can make life vast again, which is the god-like part of us.

Basically, our biometrics can be used to remind us of more meaningful information than our biological measurements, like our intangible interconnectivity that is a social and spiritual phenomenon in itself.
Secondary Research

Literature Review

Featured Readings
Biometric Data Art: Personalized Narratives and Multimodal Interaction
Yoon Chung Han (2017)
Book Review: "When Biometrics Fail"
Kelsi Barkway (2014)
The Overview of Trends and Challenges in Mobile Biometrics
Agata Wojciechowska, Michał Choraś, Rafał Kozik (2017)

Full list of resources used for this project ⟶
Current Focus of Biometric Technologies
Reading about the different types of biometric data and how they are used helped me see that there were articles that were more focused on the methods of the identification of people and on the advancement of developing emerging biometric technologies in the future.

In When Biometrics Fail, and trends and challenges of mobile biometrics, it was evident that the social aspect of biometric technologies is something that I could focus on, such as artistic and more liberal methods to use them or the ethical impact of biometric technologies of the people on which they are used.
Artistic Methods of Using Biometrics to Understand Identity
In terms of using biometrics in more artistic and liberal methods, I focused on reading Yoon Chung Han's (media artist, interaction designer) Biometric Data Art: Personalized Narratives and Multimodal Interaction. She looks at how digital apps are using our biometric data to verify our identities and using other methods to use biometric data to regain our sense of identity.

Yoon Chung Han focuses on regaining identity by looking inwards at how our biometrics are unique to each person. This inspired me to think about looking outwards at how our biometrics can also be similar to others, and how we might understand identity in terms of our interconnectivity and positionality within the bigger world outside of ourselves.

Static Biometrics vs. Dynamic Biometrics

This comparison of both main types of biometrics allowed me to see that static biometrics (unchanging), like DNA and our irises, were much more specific to each person and their biological make up. On the other hand dynamic biometrics (constantly changing), like our heart rate and temperature had data that was more accessible and similar between each person.

It would be difficult using static biometric data in an interactive installation as it is specific to each user's body, as well as harder to visualize something engaging that does not change over time.

Comparing Ethical Issues & Opportunities in a SWOT Analysis

Comparing them in a SWOT analysis also helped me see that there were a lot more ethical issues with using the public's static biometric data. This includes complications with retrieving more sensitive biological information, as well as discriminatory/biased biometric technologies that can exclude certain demographics.

Static biometrics were more focused on the individual and looking inwards, where as dynamic biometrics had more opportunities to be used for something more communal.

Ethical Issues of Biometrics

"Biometric technologies are rooted in stereotypical understandings of race, gender, and ability." (Kelsi Barkway, 2014). In other words, inequities can be heightened for marginalized demographics when there are biases in which biometrics are collected in databases and how they are used.

In addition, these biases are more inherent in technologies static biometrics: complications identifying dark irises, inaccurate fingerprint readings for the elderly, and etc. It is also used to have control and authoritarian uses over us: to minimize us into numbers and objectify us, to tell if we are criminals, and etc (Barkway, 2014).

From this, I found that there were three ethical issues on which I could focus, as well corresponding design opportunities using dynamic biometrics.
Rethinking Biometrics

Ethical Issues ⟶

Static biometrics are built with the Caucasian, male, and able-bodied in mind so they can discriminate people of other races, genders, ages, and abilities.

For example, a woman's coworker was able to unlock her phone using Face ID. This is because Apple's facial recognition database wasn't diverse enough
There is an unequal power balance between the people who use technology versus the technology is used on.

For example, U.S. prisons are collecting inmates' voice data without them knowing as a method of mass surveillance.
Placing value on using our static biometric data in emerging technologies for identification fragments our identity into specific body parts.

Design Opportunities

By using biometrics that are universal amongst all individuals rather than specific to each person, it makes the design more inclusive as the data is more easily accessible from everyone.
In addition, when biometrics are always dynamic and changing, people have more opportunities to make their own unique interpretations about it.
By allowing people to make their own interpretations, it also shows people that they have value other than just their specific body parts. It shows that they have value as a whole; in their stories and beliefs as well.

Dynamic Biometric: Heart Rate

From looking at the issues, I chose to use heart rate to investigate the design opportunities.

This is a dynamic biometric that is easily accessible and not as specific as a static biometric. It can offer users more subjective perspectives and open up the ways they view themselves.

Not to mention, the heart rate is a holistic metaphor that shows people have value in just being alive and existing.

My Design Values: A Formula for Using Biometrics

The alternative model of biometrics lead me to map out my design values. By doing so, it created a clearer context of the scope of this project. I was able to look at how the specific issue of biometric data being used for the quantification of people leads to a bigger philosophy of "One is all, all is one".

This quote is a simplified version of Watt's quote about interconnectivity mentioned above. It explains how no matter how disconnected each one of us seem, we are all part of a greater system, entity, or universe.

The categorization helped me see that there could be other possible formulas of how we can use biometrics in more meaningful ways, with different things to replace each level (e.g. using sound as a medium instead of interactive art).

Creating an Idea Bank Tool with Notion

By the final presentation, I had come across many design precedents and decided to make an idea bank from researching the methods people have interpreted biometric data. I was inspired by the idea bank shown to us at the studio tour at Aldrich and Pears given to our class and made my own with Notion, a free note taking app that had flexible templates.

I uploaded a photo and link of each precedent with their own hashtags. This was useful in that Notion allows me to search multiple hashtags at once to see which images share the same ones. It was a quick and easy way to create an organizational index of every idea that inspired me. I hope to continue growing this tool in the future.

Cultural Probe on Biometric Data

As part of my user research, I created a cultural probe and sent it out to 5 people. It prompted them to think about their ideas of identity, their social connection to others, and their awareness of their biometric data.

Research Questions
How do people interpret their own biometric data in relation to themselves and the world they live in?

Do people know where their biometric data goes?

What are the qualities of that place that makes people feel connected to others?

Heartbeat Diary

They were asked to feel their heartbeat everyday for 6 days and draw a visual metaphor for it.

From doing this, they were able to be aware of their body and talk about qualitative things like what was happening in their personal lives that related to their heart rate.

Finish The Drawing

I used this activity to find out how people connected with each other, either socially, physically, or emotionally. The empty space prompted for them to draw another person(s).

This helped me understand the qualities that people related to social connection (e.g. humour, physical touch, love, and etc.).

Body Map

In the Body Map, I wanted to see if people were aware of where their biometric data goes and asked them to draw out all of the spots on the body.

This was a way to see what devices people used, what data people thought was biometric, and to get them to start becoming more aware of where they give out their data.

My Place

In this activity, I asked people to draw a place where they felt connected with other people and the qualities of that place.


I was able to learn about what factors help people feel socially connected with others and how to apply that to my idea and the interactions in my own installation.

Storytelling With Heart Rates

Co-Creation Workshop
I wanted to find out how I could get people to interpret their heart rate combined with someone else's. I used storytelling for this method as I was inspired by the cultural probes and how they were able to get people to talk about their personal lives through feeling their heart rate. I did a workshop with 5 pairs of people and had each person in the pair connected to a heart rate sensor. I told them to draw a story about the visual of their heart rates and tell it to each other.

Being able to see the heart rates together immediately made people compare them and make assumptions about who was more stressed or relaxed. Getting them to tell their stories to each other was also a nice way for them to connect on an intimate level.

The stories always showed the values, goals, and interests of the person telling it. These were all qualitative things people learned when they were free to interpret their biometric data.
Instructions: Look at both of your heartbeats together on the screen. What do they look like and what do they remind you of? Make up a story about it. Draw it out. Then you're gonna describe what you drew to each other. You have 3 minutes. Write your name and who you're telling the story to. Person A will recite their story to person B and vice versa. How did that experience feel?


Initial Digital Sketches

Processing Heart Rate Sketches

I used an open-source Processing sketch for visualizing the heartbeat data of two pulse sensors side-by-side. To make the information less cluttered on screen, I only used the line art part of the code. I began changing the colours with the heart rate data so users could tell each pulse line apart.
To test out the interconnectivity of the pulse lines, I experimented with different densities, overlapping positions, and directions for each heart rate. The heart rates moving in opposite directions created too much opposition between the two users.
I experimented with some shapes that were more circular, in order to break out of the linear directions of the heart rates. Although there was more interconnectivity, it was even harder to tell the heart rates of two people apart.
I made a new sketch based off of a "Bull's Eye" sketch that I found on Open Processing. I "code-jammed" parts of my existing code. This visual was closer to the aesthetic I was going for. The more dense the rings, the more chaotic the visuals were, which distracted the user from the sense of interconnectivity.
Final Outcomes
Social connection in InterPulse happens in the figurative sense, and not forcing it physically or literally. Designers can create ways to make social connections, but what are the connections that are already inherent but overlooked? What are the intangible aspects around us to which we have forgotten our connections?

As biometric technologies continue to advance and merge the lines between human and the machine, it will become increasingly more important to question the impact of the machine on us, us on the machine, and us on the world that is around us.

Future Steps
Public Experience
I hope to take this device to other exhibits and see the reactions to different age groups. I am also interested in creating a way for people to document how they interpreted the experience, the things they saw from the experience, how they felt, and the discussions that arise from the interaction.
Device Building
Under the current circumstances that forced the physical production of this production to come to a halt, I will finish building the device when campus reopens. I will be adding LED lights, sounds, and hopefully one more pulse sensor.
Reuse Design Methods & Installation
Because of the versatile nature of the device, the design methods that I created can be reused for other purposes. This includes fields such as city planning, where the device can be used as an artistic co-creation to discuss concerns for certain topics and community needs. It can also be applied for physical health in terms of meditation and mental health.