A couple of months ago my attention was drawn to the BBC ‘Living Online’ report on the emergence of the emotion measurement technology. It is pioneered by a group of researchers based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Affectiva Inc. The scientists explore the potential for computers to recognise human emotions.

One of the main technologies the MIT scientists focus on at the moment is Affdex – a cloud based technology that recognises facial expressions and head movements. Using a webcam, Affdex is able to track and analyse viewers’ emotional states, such as like or dislike, confusion, attention, astonishment etc. Affdex can produce instant reports and dashboards, summarising emotional results of multiple viewers.

Originally, the research was aimed at helping people with autism to read emotions. Soon, however, scientists identified the potential of a much wider commercial application of this technological innovation. Emotion measurement technology can help advance efforts to better understand the customer and create improved products and services:

1)      Enhanced customer insight capabilities

Traditional surveys, focus groups and other customer insight methods allow users to think about their responses and ‘tailor’ what they say to the perceived requirement of the situation. Affdex tracks the emotional data that is spontaneous and real at a particular point in time, which enables a much more accurate understanding of consumers’ true feelings.

2)      Marketing pre-campaign testing

Emotional measurement technology allows marketers to collect a large amount of quality data significantly quicker, than traditional methods. Marketers can test the effectiveness of their ad campaigns by getting moment-by-moment insights on customer response.

3)      Increased brand loyalty and sales

By understanding customers’ true feelings and addressing customers’ likes and dislikes, companies would be in a position to create a differentiated customer experience and develop products that better match customer needs.

The above benefits are likely to capture marketers’ interest. However, would there be interest from the consumer side to use emotion measurement technology in their daily lives? The initial findings indicate ‘yes’. In March last year, Forbes magazine ran an Affectiva Online Smile Tracker test. The results surpassed expectations: “over 28 percent of the people, or 3,268 of them, who visited the page; 1) had webcams and 2) chose to turn them on and share their expressions while they watched the TV ads”. This compares to opt-in rates of about one percent that the magazine had seen for web surveys. The high response rate to the Affectiva Online Smile Tracker test on Forbes was influenced by the natural curiosity of the Forbes magazine readers, but the figures are impressive.

Would you like to try measure your own emotions and compare them with the average trends of the Online Smile Tracker participants? Click on the image below! This Volkswagen ad is one of my favourites (big smile!):

Volkswagen Advert

Forbes Smile Tracker Test

Despite the initial success of the Forbes Smile Tracker test, one important question remains unanswered: how far would we want to go in disclosing our real emotions? How open would we be in sharing our true feelings over the web, social media or via other technologies? One of the most attractive features of social networking is that we can ‘create’ our image (or multiple images) online the way we want others to see us. The ‘shield’ of technology allows us to feel in control over how much of our real personality and our real feelings we disclose to others. Why would we, as consumers, want to give this ‘power’ away?

To me, the answer lies in the balance between the value we place on privacy and that of utility.

The rise of social media has seen us radically rethink what we consider private. We choose to share our daily thoughts, physical location, personal photos and other personal information with large and remote circles of people. We do so even knowing that Google, Facebook and other companies are constantly collecting and using our personal information. 20 years ago this would have seemed unthinkable.

In my view, people give up privacy and the ‘power’ associated with it for the ‘benefits’ received  as a trade off: that could be anything from the sense of increased status, the ability to influence others, a stage for self expression to the basic need to fit in due to peer pressure. As long as the loss of privacy and the perceived benefit received in exchange equal a ‘zero sum’, we tend to think our lives are in balance.

The researchers of the MIT Media Lab and the Affectiva group predict that the emotion measurement technology will soon be ubiquitous.  Is this realistic, given that consumers would need to allow organisations to gather their private emotional ‘data’ due to data protection requirement? I would argue this is quite possible. As long as organisations find enticing methods to offer consumers something in exchange for this additional piece in the jigsaw puzzle of the human identity.

One example of such privacy and the emotion measurement technology utility exchange could be foreseen with the further development of augmented reality technologies.

Augmented reality applications allow integrating real-time 3D graphics into a live video stream and create a ‘real world’ user experience in the digital space.  The technology is still in its infancy however, many retailers already recognise its potential to enhance customer experience. Examples of early adopters include the Japanese glasses company Zoff, BMW, and software developers, such as Zugara (the Webcam Social Shopper).

Currently, apparel and accessories are one the fastest growing sectors in eCommerce. E-Marketer predicts this sector’s 2012 online sales to grow by 15% compared with 2011 in the U.S. The sales gains are attributed primarily to retailers’ improved methods for displaying products online. With the advancement of technology, augmented reality would drive the online visualisation potential even further. We are likely to see widespread adoption of augmented reality in future years.

Augmented reality could develop into a form of ‘tryvertising’. It will therefore be essential for retailers to offer products that appeal most to a customer at that particular moment and match their emotional state. Customers would also see a benefit of opting in for retailers to track their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with products, so that they can instantly receive suggestions that are tailored to their needs – in the same way as a good shop assistant who is able to advise in a high street shop in today’s world!

I will be watching both the further developments and the use of emotional measurement technology closely. Do you see other benefits or potential threats of this innovation? I would welcome a discussion in the comments below.