Dell's new research division wants computers to detect your mood

Brain and body sensors used in consumer-grade products could help in education, gaming

Dell Research, a new division of the recently privatized Dell, is conducting early experiments with brain and body sensors to detect a person's mood for use in computers involved with education and communications. It could also be used to monitor a person's mood while driving or playing games.

The mood experiments are among others underway at Dell Research that stretch across four broad areas: security, data insights, mobility and the Internet of Things, and cloud and modern data centers, according to Jai Menon, a vice president and Dell's chief research officer.

Dell's focus on moods and emotions will use a person's brain waves combined with heart rate, pulse or other body functions in hopes of detecting when a person is happy, sad, anxious, fearful or has other feelings, Menon said in an interview.

Eventually, such mood input could be channeled to help a teacher know when students are most alert and ready to learn or to help managers better communicate with workers, he said.

"There's a lot of potential in daily use. Say I'm in my car and calling somebody and sudden fear is sensed. Well, that fear could drive a call to 9-1-1, for example," Menon said. "In gaming, the game can become more interesting depending on our moods, and if a device senses trepidation on my opponent's part, then maybe I can beat you now."

The area of brain-computer interfaces (BCI) "has made strides in the last few years and a lot of it is high end, but our focus is on the less expensive, consumer-grade capabilities," Menon said. In the work, Dell researchers are evaluating a range of devices, including products from NeuroSky and Emotiv, that use electroencephalography (EEG) to detect brain activity, heart rate, pulse and other sensors.

One question for researchers is how specific a certain level or location of brain activity must be in order to indicate a certain mood, Menon said. Researchers must also find out if certain brain activity or other body indicators cause the same moods for more than, say, 80% of people.

If the project sounds ambitious, Menon said the it falls under a range of activities, including better voice and gesture detection, to help Dell develop a next generation of products. "Whatever we learn, we'll apply to our products."

Menon said the mood research "is in its early days. I wouldn't want to project when this could be productizable."

Of the four broad research groups at Dell, the mood experiments fall under the mobility and Internet of Things area. Dell is also working with customers in a number of industries on other IoT research projects, Menon said. Dell already uses its Kace software to manage tablets and smartphones for enterprises that could potentially be expanded to include wearables and other devices, he said.

When Dell went private last October, analysts said the company would be able to focus more heavily on research and development. Dell Research seems to be evidence of that prediction. Menon wouldn't divulge how many researchers work in the division, but said a chief scientist is assigned to each of the four groups. He called the division "small."

Before Dell, Menon was as an IBM Fellow, starting in 2000. From 2009 to 2012, he was IBM's chief technology officer and vice president of technical strategy, before moving to Dell as CTO and vice president of its Enterprise Solutions Group.

Dell Research is nearly six months old, and was created when Dell CEO Michael Dell, who founded the company in 1984, and Silver Lake Partners took the company private in late October 2013 with a $24 billion buyout of public stock after years of ups and downs at the company.

Dell has defended the company's reputation for research throughout the decades, even though Dell Research is relatively new. The company has been issued or has filed for more than 6,000 patents, Dell said earlier this year.

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Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is

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