Sensum live demo for Nesta Hot Topics event on Emotional Machines


The Hot Topics series introduces the technological tools that will change our lives in the next few years, and the panel was titled ‘Emotional Machines: Is society ready for robot companions?’


The panel was chaired by Professor Brownsword, Professor of Law at King’s College London and the former founding director of TELOS - a research centre that focusses on technology, ethics, law and society.

Myself, Gawain Morrison, co-founder and Company Director of Sensum

Kerstin Dautenhahn, Professor in the School of Computer Science at University of Hertfordshire, specialising in human-robot interactions

Ginevra Castellano, Senior Researcher at the Human-Computer Interaction Centre, University of Birmingham

And Brendan Walker, Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Nottingham, and recently appointed Professor of Creative Industries at the University of Middlesex


As part of the presentation that I was giving I wanted to demonstrate the Sensum platform in operation, so I ran 2 tests.

The 1st session was during the presentation with the assistance of 2 people in the audience, and we tested with a GoPro tightrope video, which most people respond to as it’s a 20 second clip of falling off a tightrope tied across a canyon.

The 2nd session and the one I’m going to discuss in this blog was with another audience member, James Rampton, and his physiological response was recorded for the duration of the event.

We were recording his galvanic skin response, the level of ‘arousal’ that a subject has, and in this case it was to interpret the level of engagement that the audience member had throughout the panel discussion.

James is currently working at Science Practice, a design consultancy in London and is a specialist in health informatics and biofeedback from University of Michigan. His comment .. “As an American, I am used to being monitored all the time - I might as well share that with some folks who are interested.” Thanks James.


James Rampton - Our full session participant


You would expect to see an overall pattern of high engagement to begin with, followed by a drop off throughout the duration of each presentation. There will be small fluctuations throughout, showing the engagement levels being peaked by elements of the talk or things that change the flow of the presentation.

Here is a Sensum graph displaying the audience’sresponse to the one of the presentations at Mobile World Congress event ‘Back to The Future 2023’ in Barcelona this year, where we measured a selection of the audience whilst the 6 pitch presentations took place.


Average audience response from one of the pitch presentations at the Mobile World Congress ‘Back To The Future 2023’ Innovation Event : Barcelona 2013


This Sensum session was with only one male participant and interesting as it is at a personal level, if you wanted to do a truly scientific study you would want at least 25 participants for at least 65% confidence in your results. But this was just as a bit of fun to see how an audience member would respond to the Hot Topics panel.


We begin by looking at the overall session result to see if there was a particular trend.


Full session view of the Hot Topic panel showing a continuous & steady increase in response

As you can see from James’s response the signal increased from low to high throughout the panel.Its important to consider that the heat in the room increased over the duration of the event so there will have been some overall increase attributed to that as his sweat levels increased.

But as you can also see he was engaged continuously throughout with lots of ups and downs during the panel and some larger leaps that we’ll assess below.Overall his engagement grew probably due to his interest in the subject area as he specialises in this field.

Below I have marked each time there was a handover in speakers and you can see there was a change in James’s expectation and a spike in engagement.


The overall session graph of the moments when each speaker handed over to the next showing spikes of engagement & anticipation

The session opened with a short introduction by Jessica Bland from Nesta before handing over to Professor Brownsword to introduce the panel and James’s response shows that he was a little distracted and then engaged, settling into the panel as these intros took place.

As Professor Brownsword painted the picture of what the panel was to cover, and what the considerations should be as a society in a world where we lived with robots, James’s response increased, specifically when he mentioned the paranoia that people can feel towards this way of thinking.What is of particular interest is that from this point onwards James’s engagement in what Professor Brownsword has to say increases continuously through to the handover to myself to speak.


Screengrab from the Sensum video player showing where Professor Brownsword mentions paranoia around this subject area

It’s also interesting to look at the sloping patterns for each speaker to see where in their presentations moments of interest took place, and whether they broke with convention in audience engagement.


Sensum session graph with engagement slopes for each of the speakers

Gawain Morrison

In my case whenever I began to run the live Sensum demo, the engagement increased quite a bit, probably for 2 reasons with James; firstly as he was interested in what Sensum would do and it was a break in pace from my talking; and secondly as James was involved in the session, he would be interested to see what results were likely to come out of it.

You can also see where James’s engagement spiked during my talk, his engagement then stayed at that new level, so his level of interest was now much higher than previously measured.

It would be interesting to see whether speaking later on a panel has a cumulative engagement effect, specifically if it’s a subject area of interest to you, but this wasn’t investigated as part of this test.


Gawain Morrison introducing the Sensum demo during his presentation spiking the response

Ginevra Castellano

Ginevra’s big shift in engagement took place in the middle of her talk when she introduced a video of a robot playing with a young child and explaining the emotional learning that can take place as a result of this kind of interaction, specifically in introducing empathy to education.

Was it the interest in the research & the subject matter, or the pulling of heart strings seeing a child interacting with a robot that generated this spike in engagement? Only James can answer that, but since Ginevra’s whole talk was about this research and the large spikes were at the same time as videos showing the child engaging with the robot it is most likely that they pushed James’s buttons and raised the engagement level accordingly.

Ginevra had a couple of spikes of heightened engagement across her normal declining presentation response, both of which are attributed to the playing of a video to support her research.


Ginevra Castellano showing a video of a child playing with a robot using empathy in education

Kerstin Dautenhahn

James’s largest leap of engagement through the whole event took place in the middle of Kerstin’s talk.This is where a very amusing video was shown of a robot impersonating a dog trying to attract a deaf man’s attention [or in this case a man with noise cancelling headphones].

Kerstin’s presentation had been following the normal slow decline of engagement as her talk progressed, but this video generated an overall laugh from the audience members, which James also responded to.

Again it should be noted that James’s engagement levels remained at a heightened state after this leap with a couple of other spikes occurring almost as aftershocks as further interest about this research and video were stimulated.


Kerstin Dautenhahn showing the robot dog video which generated a large leap in audience engagement

Brendan Walker

And last but not least we had Brendan Walker present his research into fairground rides.He had discovered that when measuring people’s emotional response to a range of different rides that even though they were supposed to generate fear only 4% of people actually expressed fear as a response to these rides.This statistic along with the very effective infograph on the screen helped to spike James’s engagement.

A 2nd spike occurred when Brendan explained an interactive experience where people put gas masks on to have their physiology measured, which was accompanied by images on screen, and Brendan’s talk mostly increased James’s interest, from this spike onwards. Must have been those superb sideburns!


Brendan Walker explaining that only 4% of people displayed a fear response to fairground rides

The Conclusion

James loved it! This was a fun demo with one participant so it isn’t representative of the audience and we’re not too sure you could draw too many conclusions about presentations as a whole.

But it would seem that if you break the rhythm of the presentation, people’s engagement levels are stimulated.This would fit since no matter how enthralling your speaker is the senses start to dull if they’re not stimulated.

The videos used in the presentations seem to have stimulated the most engagement from James and in this case were all relevant and not overwhelming. As each presentation continued, the previous video left a legacy of higher engagement for the rest of each speaker’s talk.

If you add humour to the presentation and can make a room laugh then engagement goes higher and will remain high as you can see from the response to Kerstin’s talk.

We’d really like to thank Nesta for inviting us to speak at this great event, the other panellists for tickling the brain juice, the audience for making the effort to turn up, and our Sensum demo guinea pigs, especially James for letting us display his responses to the world.

For other info on Hot Topics events past & present go here :

And here are links to the Nesta page & video from the event :