The changing ball uses haptic feedback to help people manage their mental health

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The changing ball uses haptic feedback to help people manage their mental health

A soft ball that ‘simulates’ breathing by expanding and contracting in sync with a person’s inhalations and exhalations has been invented by a PhD student at the University of Bath in the UK. The ball is designed to support mental health by giving users a tangible representation of their breath to keep them focused and help regulate their emotions.

Alex Farrall, the computer science student who invented the device, said: “By giving physical form to breathing, the ball improves self-awareness and engagement, promoting positive mental health outcomes.”

Breathing is generally a neglected activity, but when done deeply and with focus, it is known to relieve anxiety and promote well-being. Measured breathing is highly valued by mental health practitioners both for its ability to lower the temperature in emotionally charged situations and to increase a person’s receptivity to more demanding mental health interventions.

Disciplines that often incorporate mindful breathing include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and trauma-focused therapies.

However, most people struggle to maintain their attention on their breathing. Once disengaged from the process, they are likely to revert to thinking mode and be less receptive to mental health interventions that require concentration.

I hope that this device will be part of the solution for many people with problems related to their mental well-being.”

Mr Alex Farrall, Student, Department of Computer Science

Focus reduces anxiety

Recent research led by Mr Farrall has shown a significant improvement in people’s ability to focus on their breathing when using his shape-shifting ball. Once their attention was heightened, study participants were able to pay more attention to a guided audio recording from a meditation app.

Among those who used the ball, there was an average of a 75% reduction in anxiety and a 56% increase in protection against anxious thoughts. In contrast, those who relied only on the audio recordings had a 31% reduction in anxiety (recording 44% more anxiety than their counterparts).

Furthermore, those who accessed the ball along with audio guidance showed significantly higher heart rate variability (an indicator of better stress resistance and emotional regulation) than those who used audio alone, demonstrating the superior calming effect of the combined ball+audio approach.

The results of the study were presented earlier this year at the CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, the leading international conference on human-computer interaction.

Stop the drop off

Explaining how the device supports the user, Mr Farrall said: “When a person holds the ball, their breath becomes a physical thing between their hands. They can feel and see the flow of air as the object expands and contracts.

“This allows them to become more aware of their own internal sensations and become more receptive to psychological change.” It gives a personalized and engaging experience and is accessible to everyone.”

Mental health problems cost the NHS around £118bn a year, yet demand for services far outstrips supply, leaving many without access to mental health support. Although digital technologies such as apps have emerged to bridge this gap, many people do not use them long enough to enjoy the promised benefits, with one study showing that only 3.9% of users stick with an app program for a period of 15 days.

Mr Farrall’s interactive ball – called the Physical Artefact for Well-being Support (PAWS) – offers a potential solution by giving people an extra incentive to take an active role in managing their mental health. In time, Mr Farrall hopes his ball will be a tool used by mental health professionals and individuals alike.

“I want this device to be a real catalyst for improving mental health, not only in clinical settings, but also for home users,” he said.

Professor Jason Alexander, who led Mr Farrall’s project from Bath’s Department of Computer Science, said: “The beauty of PAWS is that the concept is so simple – allowing someone to ‘feel’ their breath – but it has the potential to revolutionize delivery and the outcomes of mental health support not just in the UK but around the world.”

Haptic feedback

The ball works through haptic feedback, where sensors attached to the user’s body transmit data about breathing patterns to the ball via a computer.

In the Bath study, the PAWS prototype used an electronic and pneumatic circuit to convert lung activity into pneumatic actuation. However, future versions will use Bluetooth technology and intelligent geometric structures to eliminate the need for cables and make the device easier and more convenient to use.

Plans are underway for a larger study to deepen the potential benefits of PAWS. This next study will include insights from mental health experts and people who have spent some time on the ball.

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