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Friday 9th August, 2013

A Facial Expression is Not an Emotion

I don’t like ‘junk science’. Unfortunately, the media love it.

‘Junk science’ happens when the media and a technology company conspire to create a technology news story that pushes the definition of ‘news’ to its absolute limit, and dumbs down the technology to the level the media believes most of us will understand. When I worked in public relations I was responsible for many such stories, so feel free to shoot the messenger.

Today, this particular story caught my eye.

A technology company claims to have developed biometric tracking technology can distinguish between smiles and frowns.

Up to this point, I have no objection. “There’s a set of six universal emotions which are the same for everyone. It doesn’t matter where they come from or how old they are. This is what we have trained our computers to be able to read from people’s faces.”, says Mihkel Jäätma, managing director of Realeyes.

“We are hoping that the technology will allow advertising in the future to be more relevant, less annoying and less pushy.”

WOAH!!! Stop right there! That is some leap of imagination.

The story goes on to suggest that this technology might assist advertisers who would find it helpful to know whether their ads are provoking smiles or frowns.

We humans are a little more complex, I fear. Some of us smile when we’re angry and frown when we’re happy. It’s true. Ask anyone who has ever spoken in front of a live audience.

It’s one of the worst mistakes in the book to try to discern how members of your audience are feeling by the expressions on their faces.

I’ve lost count of the number of occasions when I’ve thought to myself ‘Well, he was a grumpy so-and-so’ only for that person to later greet me with a beaming smile and say how much he enjoyed my presentation.

The fact is, when people are concentrating they don’t always smile. Apart from when they do, and who knows what they’re thinking about (we probably don’t want to know).

If a technology is to tell us how our audience members are feeling, it needs to be a little more sophisticated and read more than facial expressions.

And don’t forget… some people just have a BRF…

Categories: Big ideas, Think differently

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