Social x-ray glasses: curing social awkwardness and exposing your private emotions

Aug 4, 2011

Have you ever had the frustrating experience of wishing the person you were talking to would pick up on the subtle body language you’re trying to convey? Or, conversely, wishing that you could more accurately read the emotions of those around you? Turns out you’re not alone: the average person only accurately reads facial expressions 54% of the time. Luckily, researchers Rana el Kaliouby and Rosalind Picard have a cure for our social awkwardness: social x-ray specs. It started with el Kaliouby’s desire to create a device to help people with Asperber’s syndrome or on the autism spectrum, with whom reading social cues is a daily struggle. First, el Kaliouby had predominant facial expressions identified: thinking, agreeing, concentrating, interested, confused, and disagreeing. Next, she and Picard developed glasses that read and interpret the expressions through a tiny camera and computer and convey them to the glasses-wearer with visual cues, including varying colors, and a summary through an earphone.

The prototype has proven popular with autistic people, and similar technology is on the market now. El Kaliouby co-founded Affectiva, which currently sells the technology to companies wanting to read, for example, how an audience responds to an advertisement or movie. Another technology, the jerk-o-meter, a badge worn around the neck, monitors how aggressive an individual is being based on his pitch and volume—the results of which can be sent wirelessly to, for example, a smartphone. Vertex Data Science uses similar technology on customer service representatives and claims to increase sales by as much as 20%. There’s even a jerk-o-meter, or sociometric badge, that measures speaking frequency, time, physical proximity, and person spoken to that has shown that: “Simply being able to see their role in a group made people behave differently, and caused the group dynamics to become more even. The entire group’s emotional intelligence had increased” (Physica A). Then there’s the Affectiva Q Sensor wristwatch, which allows the monitoring of emotions you may be hiding but that appear through temperature and skin conductance. Picard’s even developed a webcam that can do this, in principle without your consent, by reading your heart rate, blood pressure, and skin temperature largely through color changes in your face. Are social x-ray specs something you think could benefit you or someone you know? Or do you think emotions are best kept private unless expressed or detected by someone’s who’s emotionally adept?

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