In the last few years, web advertisers have begun to employ behavioral targeting to deliver advertisements to individual users. By keeping track of sites a user has visited, ads viewed, or other behavior, new ads can be delivered that more precisely target the user’s interests. But what if you could sense the mood of the user, or the user’s reaction to ads or content? An entirely new level of precise targeting would be possible. While this may seem like science fiction, a computer won’t need to have telepathic powers if Cambridge professor Peter Robinson’s research proves to be successful. Robinson, The Herald reports, has developed a prototype of an “emotionally aware computer” that uses a camera to capture images of the user’s face, then determines facial expressions, and infers the user’s mood.
‘Imagine a computer that could pick the right emotional moment to sell you something,” says Peter Robinson, of Cambridge University. “Imagine a future where websites and mobile phones could read our mind and react to our moods.”
It sounds like Orwellian fiction but this week, Robinson, a professor of computer technology, unveiled a prototype for just such a “mind-reading” machine. The first emotionally aware computer is on trial at the Royal Society Festival of Science in London…
Once the software is perfected, Robinson believes it will revolutionise marketing. Cameras will be on computer monitors in internet cafes and behind telescreens in bars and waiting rooms. Computers will process our image and respond with adverts that connect to how we’re feeling.
While I suspect that fleeting and subtle emotional expressions will be hard to detect with Robinson’s current technology, which according to Computer Weekly tracks 20 key facial movements by measuring 24 facial feature points, that’s probably something that will be addressed over time. One wonders how accepting the public will be for this type of monitoring. Will the ability to use a convenient computer be worth giving up one’s emotional privacy? Or could an emotionally responsive computer actually deliver a better user experience?
If this technology can be perfected, the possibilities seem endless. Software usability could be greatly enhanced – a puzzled look when the user encounters a set of choices could be a clue that the interface needs work; indeed, minimizing the duration of such confusion could provide concrete metrics for human factors designers.
From an advertising standpoint, combining behavioral targeting and mood-sensing could provide optimal efficiency for advertisers. Ads that reflected both the user’s demonstrated interests and current state of mind would be far better than ads delivered by traditional targeting methods. And, if the reaction to an ad could be gauged, follow-on ads could be still more effectively chosen.
It seems like no neuromarketing story in the general press is complete without one use of the word “Orwellian,” and The Herald story is no exception. And indeed, a computer sensing our mood and reactions when we may not even be conscious of them ourselves, does seem a bit spooky. As with other sophisticated marketing techniques, though, it may come down the question of whether a well-targeted marketing pitch is a real benefit to the recipient of that effort. One can make the case that hearing about a product of particular interest and appeal is much better than seeing a random ad for a product that one has no use for. Indeed, a major appeal of specialty publications is that they have ads for products directly related to the interests of their readers. This technology would carry that a bit farther, by delivering appealing ads even when the medium (in this case, a web site) isn’t tightly focused. We can certainly expect scrutiny of how advertisers would use this tool, and consumer or even regulatory pushback if the use was overly manipulative.
Some additional issues are likely to come up if this technology begins to proliferate. Will users in public locations be notified that their expressions are being monitored? Will the technology be deployed in homes or offices? And, with the convergence of television, computers, and the Internet, can viewer-adapting TV ads be that far in the future?