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Emotion-tracking tech moves from lab to living room

A man works on a laptop computer. iMotions, a Danish company with its US headquarters in Boston, is using camera-equipped laptops and artificial intelligence software from Boston-based Affectiva to measure a person’s emotions and state of mind.
A man works on a laptop computer. iMotions, a Danish company with its US headquarters in Boston, is using camera-equipped laptops and artificial intelligence software from Boston-based Affectiva to measure a person’s emotions and state of mind.John Taggart/Photographer: John Taggart/Bloom

Can the webcam in your laptop read your mind? Not quite. But with the right software it might get pretty close.

iMotions, a Danish company with its US headquarters in Boston, is using camera-equipped laptops and artificial intelligence software from Boston-based Affectiva to measure a person’s emotions and state of mind. It’s a cheaper, simpler tool for market research, the kind that big companies do to test consumer reactions to a new TV commercial, an updated website, or redesigned cereal package.

For years, iMotions has helped companies run such tests in sophisticated laboratories where volunteers are monitored with high-definition cameras, infrared eye-trackers, skin sensors, and sometimes even brain-wave detectors. But in-person research was crippled by the COVID pandemic shutdown.

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“All over the world, everything closed down,” said iMotions chief executive Peter Hartzbech. “That was a tough time.”

The pandemic forced iMotions to innovate, by developing a version of its product that only requires a modern laptop with webcam, an Internet connection, and a willing volunteer. Now a market researcher can transmit images, sounds, or videos to the volunteer and use his webcam to capture the volunteer’s reactions.

Today’s webcams are sharp enough to detect subtle changes in facial expressions enough to enable Affectiva’s emotion-tracking technology to recognize that a person is angry, excited, or bored. They can also detect eye movements so subtle that when a photo appears on the screen, the software can calculate exactly which part of the photo has captured the viewer’s attention. And all the incoming data can be analyzed in real time.

The result, according to Hartzbech, is a cheap, quick way to conduct accurate research on consumer attitudes. A company can use e-mail messages or online ads to recruit volunteers anywhere in the world, who can take tests in their living rooms.

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“Of course it’s never going to be as good as the lab,” Hartzbech said, but he said the results are highly reliable.

To try out the system, iMotion rounded up 156 volunteers — 82 self-identified as liberals and 74 as conservatives — and showed them politically related images and videos, such as scenes from former president Donald Trump’s farewell speech and President Joe Biden’s inaugural. Sure enough, the emotion-tracking software registered high levels of anger, sadness, and fear on the conservatives’ faces, while liberal volunteers came across as far more cheerful.

Moreover, the eye-tracking software picked up distinct differences between liberals and conservatives. For instance, when looking at images of political protests, conservatives’ eyes would tend to focus on the protesters, iMotion said, while liberals paid more attention to the weapons carried by the police.

In theory, a political campaign could use iMotions to better focus its pitch to voters. But Hartzbech said “iMotions doesn’t work in the political sphere and does not plan to.” The company mainly sells to consumer products companies and academic research institutions like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where much of its underlying technology was developed. iMotions has about 1,300customers worldwide, and so far about 50 have adopted the new laptop-based system.

Emotion tracking may also have a future in automotive safety. In May, Affectiva was acquired by Swedish technology firm Smart Eye for $73.5 million. Smart Eye makes systems used by automakers such as BMW and General Motors to track drivers’ eye movements. It will now integrate its software with an Affectiva system that uses cameras mounted inside a car to determine whether a driver is alert, distracted, or sleepy.

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As for iMotions, it’s planning for a system that will eliminate the need for a bulky laptop.

“The next generation of the software, we’re moving over to the phone,” Hartzbech said.






Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.