Glasgow team channels good vibes to tackle stress

Researchers at Glasgow University have developed a range of prototype handheld devices that use vibrations to help people who suffer from social anxiety.

University of Glasgow

The Glasgow team investigated whether objects that pulse or vibrate in patterns that replicate soothing rhythms like purring cats or raindrops could provide emotional assistance during stressful situations. It was found that uniquely shaped handheld objects which vibrate in ways that evoke personal emotional resonance for people may help to reduce the intensity of their feelings of anxiety in social situations. The work is published in ACM Transactions on Human-Computer Interaction.


“Social Anxiety Disorder can be a debilitating experience for the 12 per cent of the population who will experience it at some point during their lives,” said research lead Dr Shaun Macdonald, from the University of Glasgow’s School of Computing Science. “It reduces their ability to function in everyday situations and negatively affects their quality of life. 

“Listening to calming music or meditating, for example, can sometimes help people reduce their anxiety but it’s not practical to put on headphones or find a quiet corner in the middle of most social situations. What we wanted to explore in this study was whether a handheld, silently-vibrating device could help reduce people’s stress levels to help support them during social interaction without others noticing.”

In the first phase of the study, the researchers recruited 20 volunteers who reported living with social anxiety. They were tasked with making palm-sized objects of whatever shape they preferred using familiar crafting materials like Lego, clay and fake fur. Around half the prototypes were spherical, with the rest featuring hand grips, square shapes, or modelled features like flower petals. Most had soft, fuzzy textures reminiscent of pets like cats or hamsters. 

- University of Glasgow

Then the researchers added different vibrations to the objects and asked the participants to pick a vibration style which helped them recall some kind of emotional connection to a calming feeling, like a cat purr, a small stream, or rain. Nine out of ten participants found their new vibrotactile object pleasant to hold, and 70 per cent felt it helped to calm them. 

In the second phase, the researchers built three more robust devices based on designs from phase one – a fluffy ball, a solid cube with different textures on each face, and a malleable tube shape. Each delivered more significant vibrations than the phase one prototypes. 

“The feedback from participants showed that they appreciated being able to tailor their comfort objects to their own preferences for their shape and texture,” said Dr Macdonald.

“They also felt that having the opportunity to pick a vibration that had an emotional meaning for them made it more likely to be able to reduce their anxiety.”

Co-authro Professor Stephen Brewster, also from the School of Computing Science, added: “Although this is a small study, it suggests there is value in offering people discreet access to emotionally resonant vibrations during stressful situations to help reduce their discomfort. Further studies could help deepen our understanding of the benefits vibrotactile technology offers people living with social anxiety and lead to commercial products in the future.”