Machines, Mood and the Future of Happiness


Are we ready for the interactive world?

The purpose of museums are to enshrine the past – it was filmmaker Luis Buñuel who suggested that we destroy all of them and start over. But the Museum of Modern Art just concluded an exhibit that seemed to come from some point in the future. Talk to Me, which closed on November 7, 2011, brought together hundreds of examples of machines that communicated with human beings in funny, complex and extremely thought provoking ways.

Machines allowed interacting humans to experience becoming an animal, let men feel what it is like to have a painful and messy menstrual cycle, linked phone calls and text messages to a device that slowly asphyxiates the one who answers, put the game player into a Gentrification Battlefield, demonstrated a device that allows a paraplegic graffiti artist to continue experiencing the rush of tagging large buildings using interactive software and laser projection, and presented a demonstration of a slingshot that let you paint SMS text messages across the surfaces of buildings (again using laser light projection). And, if you needed a metrocard to get home there was a full-scale working metro card machine ready to take your money. Some of the ideas were simple yet compelling – a beige retro disk drive able to detect when liquids are spilled would rise up like an animal with little legs to avoid damage to itself – a machine able to physically demonstrate self-preservation.

Ready or not – the interactive world is already here.

 My favorite exhibit though was the mood-detecting machine called Happylife – essentially a monitoring device for human emotions. The family focused device is based on technology designed to detect, and predict, future criminal activity (ideas explored in Minority Report). You simply set up the machine in your home and let it continuously study the family unit (up to four members). Happylife is three devices: a camera for capturing your “mood”, a television monitor that displays the thermal image (it also uses facial recognition and pupil dilation analysis technology) and the television display made up of four color circles and rotating dials that give feedback.

The idea is to predict future moods based on patterns of emotional activity. With this information the human subjects can do whatever is appropriate or necessary to monitor and alter their behavior. If one is trending towards happiness by all means keep doing what you are up to and let it happen. But if Happylife is detecting a movement towards depression, for instance, the family member will take appropriate measures – light therapy, exercise, antipsychotic medication. Sounds simple – and imagine the savings in therapy bills.

The multi-light display reminded me of the old red/green/blue video projectors which dismantled the video image into it’s core components – then reassembled them onto a screen into lifelike imagery. Happylife works with shifting colors and a dial that spins in a circle from lower left to lower right to register the mood. Sadly, for me anyway, these colors are not additive i.e. there were not four elements of information to be decoded for each person – each family member is assigned a single color and spinning mood gauge. Personally, I’m waiting for the four gauge multiple mood analyzer to hit the market before visiting Amazon to get one for the family.

How does this relate to story telling?

We go to the cinema, or play a video game, or skip through songs on our iPod/Phone/Pad to elevate our moods and (maybe) stimulate our brains. Although the act of viewing a film or listening to music is mistakenly called a “passive” experience it is anything but. A bass line from a Strokes single might recall a hook from a Madonna song. A bass line from a Madonna song might actually have once been a riff from a Strokes single. One reminds you of the other so hit the playlist button and change the moment. You’re watching a film on Netflix and realize that it is not matching (or properly augmenting) your mood – you jump from a comedy to a thriller with three mouse clicks. It doesn’t cost extra – you are encouraged to follow your mood swings via the entertainment you consume. A scene from the DVD you are watching is bringing you down – jump to the next one.

The future is now – except for what’s about to happen

If it sounds like I am complaining – on the contrary. If the family unit crowded around the Happylife device are on the ball they wont wait to react to the machine’s analysis – they will engage it in an interactive manner, exploring with their own experiences the relation of machine and human. And I think this is a good thing. We want to talk to our machines, and for them to talk back (Hello Siri). It’s for our own benefit. I can’t wait to see where this all leads to, I believe the psychic experience is truly expandable and can handle anything that technology throws at it. Virtual movies in 3D space (Martin Scorsese says he is ready for a completely 3D film career) with characters who continuously adapt to the choices you make (an AI challenge to the gamers out there). Bring it on. The truth is we are only limited by our own imaginations – and I am thrilled to have made it through the analog era and to be swimming in the digital stream that leads to the unknown future that will always be just around the corner.
From the MOMA website:

High-resolution thermal-image camera, Corian, stainless steel, electronics, and mechanical and computer components

15 3/4 x 39 3/8 x 3 1/2″ (40 x 100 x 9 cm)

Reyer Zwiggelaar and Bashar Rajoub have been developing new profiling technology based on biometric data, in which a camera equipped with sensors detects changes in a person’s mood and emotion by taking thermal images of his or her face. By analyzing facial expressions, eye movements, pupil dilation, and other physiological changes, the camera may be able to predict future criminal activity. With Happylife, designers James Auger and Jimmy Loizeau have adapted this technology for keeping the peace at home. The designers added a visual display with facial-recognition software, so that the camera could differentiate between members of a family. A dial, one for each family member, registers current and predicted emotional states, based on data accumulated over the years by the machine. The designers have imagined complex scenarios in which the Happylife system might have a significant impact on a family’s life, and with writer and poet Richard M. Turley, they have created vignettes to illustrate such situations: “It was that time of the year. All of the Happylife prediction dials had spun anti-clockwise, like barometers reacting to an incoming storm. We lost David 4 years ago and the system was anticipating our coming sadness. We found this strangely comforting.” The designers hope to install the system prototype in an actual family’s home to further their research.

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