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  The Herman Trend Alert

July 13, 2011

Augmenting Human Perception

The recently cancelled network TV series "Lie to Me" featured Dr. Cal Lightman, who applied psychology to read micro-expressions and body language to determine if people were telling the truth. Now, thanks to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab, this assessment will soon be within the reach of all of us.

Back in the 1970s, a United States psychologist Paul Ekman identified a basic set of seven subtle facial expressions that mirror our feelings: happiness, sadness, fear, anger, disgust, contempt and surprise. These expressions became the foundation for a theory of lie detection. This theory details that involuntary micro-expressions can briefly reveal deception before the liar restores a disguise of honesty to his face. Though the theory was later discredited, the principle still had some validity.

MIT's Media Lab has developed special glasses. Using a built-in camera linked to software that analyzes facial micro-expressions, the attached earpiece whispers the true interpretation into one's ear. The camera tracks 24 "feature points" on your conversation partner's face; analyzing the micro-expressions, how often they appear, and for how long. Then it compares the collected data with its bank of known expressions.

When MIT researchers Picard and el Kaliouby were calibrating their prototype, they were surprised to find that the average person was only able to interpret, 54 percent of the 24 expressions on real, non-acted faces correctly. They reasoned that most people could use some help reading the real mood of people they were talking with. By contrast, the software correctly identifies 64 percent of the expressions.

MIT's glasses are just one example of a number of "social X-ray specs" that will change how we interact with each other. By accurately sensing emotions that we would otherwise misinterpret, these technologies can help people avoid disastrous social blunders. Moreover, they can help us understand each other better. Even physiological responses may be tracked by webcam, based on color changes in the subject's face and other manifestations. Some companies are already equipping their employees with these technologies, to help them improve customer communication.

Expect an iPhone app any day to make this technology more accessible to all of us.

Special thanks to the current issue of "New Scientist" Magazine for this topic.


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