Elgan: Siri, how do I feel?

Our gadgets may soon know more about our moods and emotions than we do.

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A standard webcam captures the user's movements, facial expressions and the orientation of his or her head, neck and torso. But instead of simply broadcasting video of the person, the system uses that information to animate the chosen avatar image in real time.

So as the person talks, for example, the avatar's mouth moves in concert with his mouth and the avatar appears to be saying what the person is saying. The avatar smiles when the user smiles, frowns when the user frowns and shrugs when the user shrugs.

Here's an example of this technology developed at Keio University in Japan.

I believe this kind of live-capture avatar chat will prove very popular, because it will offer people a rich interactive experience online without exposing actual images of users or even identifying them.

The cues necessary to animate the avatar are easily captured as moods or emotions.

Live-capture avatar services will probably generate revenue from contextual advertising.

Call someone who cares

Analyzing still images and video is just one way for computers to detect emotion. Monitoring activity is another.

Ginger.io, a startup spun out of MIT, has technology that uses various sensors in smartphones to determine emotions. The company is working on tailoring its technology to help depression sufferers.

The idea is that people being treated for depression will have the technology running on their phones. As they go about their lives, the app will always be paying attention. When the app detects that a user is severely depressed -- say, because he or she stayed in bed all day or hasn't been physically active -- it would automatically contact a healthcare professional working with the patient.

The technology is also being tested for use with average, healthy users. Ideally, it could provide a lot if information about whether someone is happy or sad, depressed or anxious -- in short, it could constantly detect mood and emotion.

Researchers at Samsung are using entirely different data to detect the emotions of smartphone users.

Samsung's method is to monitor how the user interacts with the phone itself, such as how fast the user types, how much the backspace button is used and even how much the phone is shaking during use to figure out if the user is happy, angry, fearful, sad or disgusted.

In fact, there are many ways to use the sensors in smartphones to detect people's moods or emotions.

A virtual assistant that's virtually human

Each of these technologies represents part of a larger trend toward computers that detect our emotions. Our computers will do it. Our phones will do it. We'll be monitored at all times for how we feel.

The payoff could be something that feels like empathy from the machines in our lives.

For example, the Siri virtual assistant from Apple or the Google version, Google Assistant (which may be announced next week), will become increasingly "human" by developing the ability to detect emotion.

Real human assistants interact with you differently if you're in a good mood or a bad one. They lend an ear when you want to vent, and share your happiness when you get good news. Similarly, virtual assistants will be improved to the point where they can emulate empathy.

There's no question in my mind that the evolution of Apple's Siri and Google Assistant will include mood and emotion detection capabilities.

Mood and emotion detection is a new frontier in human-machine interaction. It will make our computers and phones both more capable and more "human."

It will also help advertisers target us more effectively.

How do you feel about this? If you're not sure, don't worry. Soon, your phone will be able to tell you.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. You can contact Mike and learn more about him at Elgan.com, or subscribe to his free email newsletter, Mike's List. You can also see more articles by Mike Elgan on Computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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