How do you feel? The future of mood-altering technology


Next time you walk past a billboard, pay attention to what it’s showing you – is the advert changing to become more cheerful, perhaps incorporating brighter colours? It could be reacting, in real-time, to your facial expression. Mood-sensing technology is under development by a number of companies, and will soon hit consumer products, as well as being used in our wider environment – including, most immediately, advertising.

Companies including Coca-Cola and P&G are already experimenting with emotional analysis software. Apple filed a patent for a mood-based advertising system earlier this year, and Microsoft has patented a pair of glasses that can read and respond to emotion.

AffDex, an emotion analysis system developed by US company Affectiva, is leading much of the innovation. AffDex gauges mood using facial scanning technology; its system can map out 46 human facial expressions. In practice, this means it can track when a horror film is too scary, when an advert has become boring, or when you might be in the mood to be cheered up.

Having already worked with companies such as CNN to use the technology in staged environments – such as testing the success of a new TV show – Affectiva is now moving onto its next stage: embedding its technology in volunteers’ cars and homes to track how they react to everyday interactions. This opens up the possibility of homewares that know how we feel, and behave accordingly.

A number of conceptual projects have experimented with this idea: in 2014, design graduate David Hedberg exhibited Smile TV, a television that switches on only when you smile; to watch a full episode of your favourite show, you must maintain a rictus grin. Designer Talia Radford has similarly created a camera that is activated by a kiss; turning emotion into an interface, and making the “likes” of Instagram and Facebook far more literal.

Wearables are able to add another layer of information to mood analysis, using electro-dermal skin sensors to gauge their user’s state of mind in real-time. Studio XO’s XOX bracelet can track how anxious or excited its user is simply by being clipped to their wrist. Smart wristband Doppel is able to alter its user’s mood: rhythmic beats pulse from the band to calm you down or increase your alertness on demand.

The next generation of wearable technology could use mood information to give food recommendations; suggesting chocolate to cheer you up, or bananas for energy, for example. Layer onto this a smartwatch’s knowledge of your upcoming tasks and appointments, and you have a device that can gauge your mood, then find out if you are heading into an important meeting, and deliver the perfect meal, music or visuals to optimize your mood to what you’re doing.

There are clear privacy implications around this technology, and how much people choose to opt-in will depend on how comfortable they are with sharing their information – and how they stand to benefit from doing so.

The line between an ad or device knowing what you want at the perfect moment, and knowing what you want before you even do, is the line that divides convenience from creepiness. For companies, it will be crucial to behave transparently and responsibly with mood-sensing technology; loss of trust will be instant, and extremely shareable.

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