SQuirreling! A Motivation Interpreter

This is an integrative project to prototype and test an augmented reality-based tool designed to enhance “think positive” techniques from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which has been found to help significantly in the treatment of depression.  Besides regular CBT sessions, an effective tool to act as a reminder of positive thoughts might help regulate emotions and reinforce the new patterns of thinking.  The original idea of the project was an empathy exercise inspired by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s metaphorical poem, “The Mountain and the Squirrel,” which offers the assurance that every person has a distinctive role in life: “…Talents differ; all is well and wisely put; If I cannot carry forests on my back, Neither can you crack a nut.”

The goal of this project is to first design the concept and then prototype an empathy toolkit to encourage those suffering from depression to go for a walk in the park with their imaginary friends, who might be squirrels, birds, flowers, trees or inanimate objects along one or a few designated areas where squirrels are active.  When people involved in the project point their smartphones to a specific location to capture the image of a squirrel, for example, the expression of the squirrel will instantly be superimposed with a friendly phrase or an inspirational quote of their preference (by selecting from a list of different themes and issues) right on the screen.  They will be given the option to write a caption to match the expression, as well.  By the end of the walk, a text message of distilled moments will be sent to users automatically as a reminder.  The tool can either be adapted as a self-guided program for people to check whether they feel more optimistic and positive after they finish each walk, or used as an integrated treatment alongside formal sessions of the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

Design Challenge

For the prototype project, the role of squirrels was used because people often have ambivalent attitudes toward them.  For some people, squirrels are often associated with “negative” characteristics and roles, such as ‘tinkerer’ or ‘petty thief’ to describe a ‘disliked person’ but others can’t help but adore those urban squirrels—the “elegant creature, so clearly in its habits, so graceful in its carriage, so nimble and daring in its movements,” as the American naturalist John Burroughs described.  The fact there are plenty of squirrels residing in New York City provides great opportunities to observe the discrepancy.  Since squirrels are very expressive creatures with strong characteristics, is it possible for us to match their images with friendly/inspirational phrases and turn them into some kind of ‘motivators’?

I began to explore specific postures/gestures these squirrels adopted and track them down each day for two weeks inside Central Park.  Ten default images of expression were chosen.  I asked a small group of participants to match different images of squirrels with different kind of phrases in 4 design conditions: Squirrels with inspirational phrases, Squirrels with friendly phrases, Simple Color background with inspirational phrases, and Simple Color background with friendly phrases.  Can friendly phrases, such as “I love hanging out with you,” “I believe in you!” and “I’m here if you need to talk,” suffice to cheer people up? Can inspirational phrases help to prevent negative thought patterns that keep people from enjoying their day?  Various quotes or captions of positive thinking were selected through an online database to match the expression of each squirrel.  Do images of squirrels help promote or counteract the message of positive thoughts?  The preliminary result is promising.  People were capable of matching different images of squirrels with different kind of phrases.  They preferred to have images of squirrels matched with inspirational quotes rather than simple, friendly phrases.

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