Hands-on: Can a heartbeat-simulating wearable tweak your mood?

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Doppel heartbeat-simulating wearable(Credit: Will Shanklin/New Atlas)

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Wearable tech is often associated with smartwatches and fitness trackers, but we've also seen a niche group of consumer products aimed at regulating emotions. While it's an area ripe for a placebo effect, we found Doppel, a heartbeat-simulating wrist wearable, to be curious enough to demo at CES 2017.

The idea behind Doppel: strap the watch-like device to your wrist, facing inwards, and the wearable will vibrate to a set rhythm, chosen in a companion smartphone app. A slower simulated heartbeat will supposedly slow your own heart rate, making you feel calmer; a faster beat, conversely, will energize and perhaps focus you.

Along similar lines as the Thync brain-zapping wearable, Doppel is promising nothing less than drug-free mood alteration, courtesy of modern technology.

My demo in a crowded CES showcase room wasn't lengthy enough to draw any definitive conclusions, even of the anecdotal variety, but I did perceive Doppel as making me feel slightly calmer, as the unit tapped out a 57-BPM heartbeat on the inside of my right wrist. Like listening to a relaxing piece of music, something in my brain seemed to take a cue from the rhythm and I experienced what felt like a mellow mood.

On the other hand, maybe I was just feeling what I wanted or expected to feel. The placebo effect is a well-documented and powerful phenomenon in skewing scientific studies, and with a mood-altering wearable, where the goal is more about subjective feeling than physically-measured response, firm conclusions become even murkier.

In stating its case for the US$179 device, the company cites research showing the heartbeats of mothers and babies, as well as couples, synchronizing while in close proximity.

It also refers to an internal study where participants completed a controlled Psychomotor Vigilance Task (a sustained-attention, reaction-timed task that measures the speed with which subjects respond to a visual stimulus): Participants wearing a Doppel wearable set at a rapid 100-120 BPM committed fewer lapses than a group with the wearable turned off. The company says this shows that those who felt the fast heartbeat feedback were more alert and focused.

We've reached out to multiple experts in the psychophysiology field for their takes on Doppel's claims, and will update when we hear back.

I personally see some logic in Doppel's premise. Few people would question music's ability to affect one's mood, and rhythm is the backbone of most songs. An athlete might get pumped by listening to a high-energy techno or hip-hop track, with faster BPM, while someone trying to calm down might put on slower-paced jazz or classical tracks. Doppel moves that beat from your inner ear to your inner wrist.

At the very least, it's a fascinating idea that stands out from the din of solution-in-search-of-a-problem tech on display at CES. Here the problem is clear: modern reliance on alcohol, caffeine, sleeping pills and prescription drugs to regulate moods. What isn't as clear (yet) is whether this is a truly viable alternative.

We'll try to track down a review unit to do further testing. Doppel is available to pre-order now, for a limited-time £125 (about US$152) price, after which it will jump up to a $179 MSRP. The company expects shipments to start in March.

Product page: Doppel

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