Emotion-reading Social Specs


Written by Olivia Patt
18 Monday 18th July 2011

Artist's interpretation of possible prototype

The “social x-ray specs” are the brainchild of Rana el Kaliouby of the University of Cambridge, and created by Rosalind Picard, an electrical engineer. The idea is simple, the technology astounding. Inside the glasses is a miniscule camera which registers the facial expressions and twitches of the person sitting in front of you, which is then transmitted by software to a small earpiece that tells the wearer, “The person is front of you is extremely angry so shut the hell up”, or something to that effect. There’s even a little red light that appears just in case you’re really not getting the message. Undeniably an inspired idea for those who suffer from autism, but these babies are going to be released to the general public. In a world in which emotional recognition is now standard procedure in marketing, and Facebook recognises your own face before you do, do we really need another tool to make what should be private, public? And how much do we really want to know? According to experiments carried out by Picard and el Kaliouby, people on average only recognise 54% of others' facial expressions correctly. It would seem that up until now, most of us have been blissfully ignorant as to what other people are unconsciously trying to tell us. 

So far, the demand for these specs is mainly coming from governments, military, marketing companies, and the police, as if they didn’t have enough gadgets already. With all the facial recognition technology out there, why not go that step further and recognises the emotions on the face? After all, Facebook has brought in facial recognition, and kept it, despite concerns over privacy. Meaning that out of the more than 750 million users out there, Facebook knows who you are just by looking at your face; a slightly disquieting thought. And if Facebook has it, why not the police?

In Brazil, it has been announced that officers policing the 2014 World Cup will use glasses with built in facial recognition software to catch known football hooligans. Throughout America, around 40 law enforcement units are about to begin using a new gadget which attaches to an iPhone, of all things, and can take pictures of peoples’ faces from five feet away, and then scan through a database to see if this person has any criminal record. And if it’s in the States, it won’t be long before it reaches Britain. Of course, the police have always had this technology - but it’s never been so mobile before. Essentially, the police can now snap a photo of you without your knowing, see if there has been any criminal history, and drag you in, all before you finish your frappuccino. But don’t worry; the police have promised to use the technology only if there is “suspicion of criminal activity”. Phew. 

Privacy protection doesn’t even come into it. The social x-ray specs apparently reveal nothing which you do not want to be revealed, as you are already saying it yourself, which implies a rather impressive level of control over our facial expressions. The police are allowed to use iPhone facial recognition because you’re in a public place. Anyone can take photos of anyone else passing through a public place. Think about CCTV. We spend the majority of our time on CCTV- in 2006, it was estimated that there were 4.2 million CCTV cameras in Britain, and today, the true figure is not known as there is no national register of CCTV cameras. So just imagine these little gadgets as mobile CCTV cameras, in the hands of a hulking Texan policeman, except the camera knows exactly who you are, and all the naughty things that you have done. Scared yet?

And so the relentless and slightly frightening advances in surveillance and recognition technology continue. Get ready for a world in which we all have ID cards, our every movement is tracked by our registered Oyster cards, police can arrest you with just the click of a button, and your best mate is about to know that actually, yes, her arse DOES look fat in those jeans. It’s coming. 

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