BOSTON (CBS) – For Rana el Kaliouby, being a young newly-wed woman in London was a lonely time. She missed her family at home in Egypt and spent most of her time with her face buried in a laptop for graduate school.
“I was using this device to communicate with my family and the emotion would just get lost,” El Kaliouby told WBZ-TV. The nights she had tears running down her cheeks made her wish for a way to tell her family how she felt in a more natural way.
El Kaliouby, a computer scientist, worked to develop a technology that could recognize even subtle facial expressions and translate them automatically. The result is an innovation with potential to help in the fight for mental health.
For example, el Kaliouby says people with depression tend to emote less, might have droopy eyelids or express things slower. She says these signs are very telling and over time, a device you use frequently could flag your changes in emotions.
“It can say, ‘you know what you’re deviating from your normal here. Something’s off,'” says el Kaliouby. “With that data it can either tell you something is off, or flag it to a friend or doctor. Or maybe it could customize a digit experience to help you.”
Her company, Affectiva of Waltham, is an off-shoot of MIT’s Media Lab. The technology is currently being used by marketers who want to quantify the impact of a product that may have previously relied on a subjective response of a user. For instance, a movie company that wants to know which parts of a film are the funniest to build a trailer.
Glasses for people with autism make use of the technology and help them interpret facial expressions of the people they need. Mindfulness and meditation smartphone apps are also working to incorporate the emotional intelligence software, but el Kaliouby sees even more opportunities in the health market, such as empathy training for doctors or measuring side effects of a medication.
The company says the public concern of “too much tech” is legitimate but that they’re trying to work with the devices we already have to make the user experience better.
“These devices are not going away,” says el Kaliouby. “Let’s find a way where they can acknowledge how we naturally connect and communicate with each other. That’s with emotions and through emotions.”
El Kaliouby discussed the innovation on the TED stage. You can watch her talk online.