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The On Ramp

The Blue Mountain Internet Customer Newsletter

 Issue # 47 September 2007 
  • Greetings from the Edi...
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  • What if your computer could...
    by Cheryl Hooker
    September 2007

    What if your computer could tell if you are boring or irritating

    There is a hand-held computer that can pick up on people's emotions. It is being developed to help people with autism relate to those around them. If the wearer fails to generate the listener's interest in his conversation, the computer vibrates. This would alert the autistic user, as the person they are conversing with starts showing signs of getting bored or annoyed. An autistic person lacks the ability to pick up on social cues.

    Rana El Kaliouby of the Media Lab at the MIT says that these types of people fail to notice that they are boring and confusing, their listeners which could turnout to be very damaging. "It's sad because people then avoid having conversations with them," he said. El Kaliouby is constructing the device along with MIT colleagues Rosalind Picard and Alea Teeters.

    The device consists of a camera small enough to be housed to the side of a pair of glasses, connected to a hand-held computer running image recognition software plus software that can read the emotions these images show. If the wearer seems to be failing to engage his or her listener, the software makes the hand-held computer vibrate. The device demonstrated could detect whether someone is agreeing, disagreeing, concentrating, thinking, unsure or interested, just from a few seconds of video footage.

    Previous computer programs have only detected the six more basic emotional states of happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise and disgust. El Kaliouby's is designed to convey results in a sequence of movements rather than a single expression. The software picks out movements of the eyebrows, lips and nose, and tracks head movements such as tilting, nodding and shaking, which it then associates with the emotion the actor was showing. The team will present the device next week at the Body Sensor Network conference at MIT.

    People with autism are not the only ones who stand to benefit. Timothy Bickmore of Northeastern University in Boston, who studies ways in which computers can be made to engage with people's emotions, says the device would be a great teaching aid. This could be considered both a bad and a good thing, though we all want our listeners to take interest in what we are saying, would this cause us to be so overly cautious that we would have trouble finishing a conversation in an attempt to adapt to our listeners moods and forget the topic all together?

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