Affectiva aims to grow with an emotional appeal

Affectiva's software recognizes emotions using facial expressions.
Affectiva's software recognizes emotions using facial expressions.

Affectiva Inc. sees a future in which every computer knows how you feel.

The Waltham startup has analyzed more than 3.4 million faces around the world and mined them for billions of ordinary expressions: wrinkled brows, widened eyes, lips pulled tight, and more. Its researchers have created algorithms that allow devices of all kinds — smartphones, tablets, and laptops — to identify the emotions under those expressions.

Affectiva is in the vanguard of an emerging field that has applications across several industries, including advertising, media, education, and robotics and is projected to generate $42.5 billion in annual worldwide sales in 2020. Imagine smartphones with “emotion chips” that allow the devices to sense when their owners are sad, sending them an encouraging message or even calling their moms.

Affectiva was founded in 2009, spun out of the MIT Media Lab by Rana el Kaliouby, who conducted research under Rosalind Picard, a pioneer in the field called affective computing, and a co-founder. The company has been able to pick out universal patterns in that data — facial changes that signify certain feelings no matter where people live or grew up.

But they’ve also quantified differences in behavior between groups, across genders, or across the 75 countries they studied. For example, Affectiva has found that in the United States, women tend to be 40 percent more expressive than men, but that both genders are equally stoic in the United Kingdom.

Affectiva used this data to build its algorithms that can run as apps on any mobile device, allowing the technology to be widely used. The potential has attracted some of the most successful venture capital firms, including Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers of San Francisco and Horizons Ventures of Hong Kong, and helped Affectiva raise a total of about $20 million.

Millward Brown, a global market research firm, has licensed the technology and used the software to test consumer reactions to more than 1,000 brands from consumer products companies such as Kellogg Co. of Battle Creek, Mich., Mars Inc. of McLean, Va., and Unilever PLC of London.

Media giants are also pilot-testing the software, tracking audiences to find the emotionally engaging parts of sitcoms so they can sell ad time to appeal to people when they are most receptive, said Gabi Zijderveld, Affectiva’s vice president of marketing and product strategy.

Museums are interested in using the technology to refine the effectiveness of interactive exhibits, Zijderveld said. Chocolate maker Hershey Co. created a promotional device to place in stores that dispenses a candy bar when a visitor standing in front of the machine smiles.

OoVoo LLC, a New York firm that makes video chat software, is integrating a version of Affectiva’s product into its Intelligent Video group chat system, to give speakers to online audiences an indication of how engaged their listeners are.

Another potential market: online education. Affectiva says its technology could help professors make online lectures more engaging for students. Social robot makers are testing a version of the software to make their machines interact more naturally with people. And Affectiva has begun to explore how its software could have an effect on health care, perhaps as a tool in telemedicine.

This article was corrected at 11:00 a.m. Nov. 7 to clarify that Rosalind Picard c0-founded the company. 

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at nidhi.subbaraman@globe.com.
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