Unilever Pioneers Research into Facial Expressions

19 July 2007

AMSTERDAM: The developers of new computer technology claim the ability to gauge consumers' true feelings versus their oral or written comments while participating in focus groups and research panels.

Developed in 2006 by Visual Recognition, the commercial arm of the Universiteit van Amsterdamn's ISLA Laboratory, the technology is currently under pilot by foods and household products mammoth Unilever.

A panel of three hundred women (females apparently have more expressive faces than men) were filmed whilst eating ice cream, chocolate, cereal bars, yogurt and apples.

When the movie was run through VR's Emotion-Recognition Software, it registered fewer smiling faces for healthy foods.

Apples triggered 87% neutral expressions, with Italians and Swedes in particular showing 'disappointment' when eating them; while yogurt prompted 'sad' expressions for 28% of the sample.

Said VR co-developer Theo Gevers: "I was happy when the testing was over. Using the software on people eating was a challenge, something we would not have done in an academic lab. We didn't know precisely how well it would work, but it did."

Gevers and his co-developer Nicu Sebe first came to Unilever's attention after they ran a portrait of the Mona Lisa through their software, which found her enigmatic smile to be "83% happy".

E-RS works by creating a 3-D face map that identifies twelve key trigger areas, for example the areas around the eyes and corner of the mouth.

A face-tracking algorithm then matches the movements to six basic expression patterns which correspond to anger, sadness, fear, surprise, disgust and happiness.

According to Unilever UK consumer scientist Mandy Mistlin: "The software may eventually be used to test reduced-fat and -calorie ice creams to see if they maintain the pleasure principle."

But whether the technology will catch on among marketers and researchers remains to be seen.

Some might attach greater credence to good old-fashioned human judgement, recalling former Soviet president Andrei Gromyko's description of Mikhail Gorbachev: "Comrades, this man has a nice face ... but he's got iron teeth."

For further information on E-RS click here.

Data sourced from mrweb.com; additional content by WARC staff