If you think having your phone identify the nearest bus stop is cool, wait until it identifies your mood.
New research by a team of engineers at the University of Rochester may soon make that possible. At the IEEE Workshop on Spoken Language Technology on Dec. 5, 2012, the researchers will describe a new computer program that gauges human feelings through speech, with substantially greater accuracy than existing approaches. Surprisingly, the program doesn't look at the meaning of the words. "We actually used recordings of actors reading out the date of the month—it really doesn't matter what they say, it's how they're saying it that we're interested in," says Wendi Heinzelman, professor of electrical and computer engineering.
Heinzelman explained that the program analyzes 12 features of speech, such as pitch and volume, to identify one of six emotions from a sound recording. And it achieves 81% accuracy— a significant improvement on earlier studies that achieved only about 55% accuracy.
The research has already been used to develop a prototype of an app. The app displays either a happy or sad face after it records and analyzes the user's voice. It was built by one of Heinzelman's graduate students, Na Yang, during a summer internship at Microsoft Research. "The research is still in its early days," Heinzelman adds, "but it is easy to envision a more complex app that could use this technology for everything from adjusting the colors displayed on your mobile to playing music fitting to how you're feeling after recording your voice."
Heinzelman and her team are collaborating with Rochester psychologists Melissa Sturge-Apple and Patrick Davies, who are currently studying the interactions between teenagers and their parents. "A reliable way of categorizing emotions could be very useful in our research," says Sturge-Apple. "It would mean that a researcher doesn't have to listen to the conversations and manually input the emotion of different people at different stages."