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Affectiva raises $14 million to bring apps, robots emotional intelligence

TechCrunch TechCrunch 25/05/2016 Lora Kolodny

Affectiva, a startup developing “emotion recognition technology” that can read people’s moods from their facial expressions captured in digital videos, raised $14 million in a Series D round of funding led by Fenox Venture Capital.

According to cofounder Rana el Kaliouby, the Waltham, Mass.-based company, wants its technology to become the de facto means of adding emotional intelligence and empathy to any interactive product, and the best way for organizations to attain unvarnished insights about customers, patients or constituents.

She explained that Affectiva uses computer vision and deep learning technology to analyze facial expressions or non-verbal cues in visual content online, but not the content or conversations in a video.

The company’s technology ingests digital images—including video in chat applications, livestreamed or recorded videos, or even GIFs—through typically the simplest web cams.

Its system first categorizes then maps the facial expressions to a number of emotional states, like happy, sad, nervous, interested or surprised. Over time, the company’s systems learn, from the videos it analyzes, about more complex emotions and broader range of emotions.

It hopes to someday be able to accurately parse expressions of hope, inspiration and frustration from non-verbal cues.

So far, the company has amassed a data repository of 4.25 million face videos from people in 75 different countries yielding over 50 billion emotion-related data points.

Assessing facial expressions across gender and international lines proved essential to making “emotion AI” work, el Kalouiby said.

Some expressions are unique to different regions.

For example, Affectiva has discovered a “politeness smile,” that is not representative of “happiness,” or “smirking,” which is a prevalent expression among communities in Southeast Asian countries or India. But the “politeness smile” is not prevalent in the Americas, Africa and Europe.

Early adopters of Affectiva’s emotional intelligence systems have included independent video game studios. and brand and advertising divisions of large corporations like Unilever, Kellogg’s, Mars and CBS.

Flying Mollusk Studio, for example, used Affectiva’s Affdex SDK to make a psychological thriller genre video game called Nevermind, which becomes more challenging when players feel scared or nervous. If players can master their emotions, and stay calm or calm down, the game levels are easier to master and less surreal.

Advertisers and marketers have also used Affectiva’s software-as-a-service to conduct focus groups, of a kind, where respondents don’t have to describe how they feel as they review an advertisement, program or new product for the first time. Their emotional response can simply be assessed through the software.

The idea is that if a majority of viewers of a film, program or commercial lose interest at a certain point, companies that use Affectiva for testing will know it, and be able to tweak their content after getting “emotional journey” reports back from their focus groups.

It’s not hard to imagine bad actors using the power of emotional intelligence reading to swindle or hurt people. And of course marketing and consumer research is always a bit manipulative.

But el Kalouiby emphasizes that Affectiva doesn’t and won’t develop deception detection features, and the company requires all of the companies that use its technology to get explicit opt-ins and consent from their end users before analyzing their facial expressions.

Further she added, “It’s like if you are playing poker, you can mask some of your emotions. We want users to know exactly what our technology can and can’t do, and to be aware when they are engaging with it.”

Investors in Affectiva expect the company to take “emotion AI” into new corners of tech, especially health, robotics and education, said Fenox Venture Capital’s CEO and General Partner Anis Uzzaman. Fenox has also invested in the personal robot makers, Jibo. It’s easy to envision a potential partnership there.

Uzzaman envisions a future where devices like Echo or apps like Siri, or for that matter Google Maps are empathetic and responsive to a user’s mood.

The firm’s limited partners are all corporations who want an early look at cutting edge technologies that startups have to offer, and which they can use to improve their own businesses.

With this deal, Uzzaman said, Fenox connected Affectiva with the likes of Bandai Namco and Sega Sammy Holdings, toy and video game makers who could use emotion AI in entertainment.

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