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Get Buzzed When You’re Blissed Out

Above: Ramesh Rao, director of the Qualcomm Institute at UCSD, works on the communication between devices in the Bliss Buzzer system.

Aired 6/6/13 on KPBS News.

A computer engineer at UCSD is using the latest technology to help combat stress and encourage bliss.

Stress is a part of life in our fast-paced culture. Health care experts tell us how bad it is, but it’s not easy to avoid in the midst of work deadlines and getting the kids to school on time.

A computer engineer at UCSD has created a device that could help. Dr. Ramesh Rao, director of UCSD's Calit2, now called the Qualcomm Institute, wants us to be reminded when we've achieved a relaxed state. He thinks people will then be more proactive about creating restful moments throughout their day.

His invention is called the Bliss Buzzer and it's really a system of devices that all talk to each other. There's a heart rate monitor, which is a chest strap with sensors in it, a wristwatch and an app for a tablet device.

The wristwatch and tablet app used in the Bliss Buzzer system.

Rao is a yoga devotee. I recently joined him at a restorative yoga class in Del Mar, where I agreed to wear the Bliss Buzzer to see how it works. The chest strap was about two inches at its widest and about one inch at its narrowest. I wore the chest strap under a t-shirt, so it touched my skin. The chest strap has sensors which monitored my heart rate throughout the class. I also wore the Bliss Buzzer wristwatch. The chest strap sensors talk to the wristwatch via Bluetooth. When the variation of my heart rate indicated an optimally relaxed state, the wristwatch told me so by vibrating or "buzzing."

It's actually not an audible sound. It's more of a quiet, unobtrusive vibration. Eventually, it can be programmed to make other alert noises. "We're working on one that sighs," Rao said.

During the yoga class, it buzzed during a deep twisting stretch, when I settled into a wall pose, and when I laughed. I was actually proud of myself when it buzzed. "You can get hooked on the buzz without knowing that you’re doing it," explained Rao. "And so to the extent that we are associating it with healthful states, that’s a good entrainment. It teaches you."

Ramesh Rao started running and doing yoga when he turned 50. He wears a heart monitor every time he runs and collects the data. He has five years of data measuring his progress.

Rao's yoga instructor, Roger Cole, was not surprised when I described the Bliss Buzzer to him. "Ramesh is always wearing some kind of monitor," he laughed. Regarding the benefits of the Bliss Buzzer, Cole noted, "It's just like people use the pedometer to measure their steps, it’s a training device."

The absence of the buzz can also be a training force. If you haven’t buzzed in a while, it might be time to go for a walk or listen to some calming music.

Five years ago, Rao turned 50. He wasn’t exercising and his job was stressful. "I could sense that I was in this routine where at the end of the day I was exhausted and I was beginning to use food as a way to unwind," Rao said.

He started running and practicing yoga. Like a true engineer, Rao wanted to measure his progress by capturing data. "I have years worth of data of this kind. Every time I go running, I wear a heart rate monitor," said Rao, now rail thin.

Rao keeps all of the nuts he eats on a counter in his kitchen. He's figured out what foods provide the maximum amount of nutrients and raw nuts are a big part of his diet.

He tested his body’s reaction to different stimuli: running barefoot on the beach versus running on a trail. He looked at how certain foods impacted his heart rate. Rao now has five years of data about his own body. He sometimes wonders if that’s a little narcissistic, but he keeps learning new things. "That’s how I’m trying to modulate my entanglement with this data," he explained. "As long as I keep getting new insights, I think it’s healthy."

The Bliss Buzzer came out of Rao’s fascination with the data and the lifestyle changes it inspired. The device is still in a research phase, but eventually he thinks the Bliss Buzzer will impact health care, especially in places like India and China. "Here (in the US) we have a debate. Is prevention important or do we just build better hospitals? But for most of the world that’s not a debate," Rao noted. "So I think there has to be a greater emphasis on prevention and on learning things on a long-term basis."

The Bliss Buzzer team (L-R): Ramesh Rao, John Zhu, Arindam Ganguly, Anthony Nwokafor, Dheeraj Navani, Nafi Rashid, Tiffany Fox and Giorgio Quer.

There’s already a tablet app for the Bliss Buzzer that allows you to make notations and interpret the data the system gathers. Eventually, the system will integrate with cell phones. Rao and his team have entered the Bliss Buzzer in an international research competition sponsored by Nokia and the X PRIZE Foundation. The competition is meant to support projects that aim to improve personalized, digital health.

In the meantime, Rao’s learning a lot by having friends and colleagues wear the Bliss Buzzer. My favorite finding: when Rao and other subjects ate high quality chocolate, their heart rates relaxed, activating the Bliss Buzzer.

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