• 02.04.14

Why Is Apple Building Mood Sensors?

To attempt a human-computer interaction this complex, Apple must see a huge pot of gold at stake. Can it actually work?

Why Is Apple Building Mood Sensors?
[Image: Flickr user Steve Jurvetson]

Marketing has always been about playing the heartstrings, but don’t think Apple’s new patent on mood-sensing technology is going to revolutionize the field, says mood-tracking technology researcher Whitney Erin Boesel.


“[This technology] is usually based on assumptions that may or may not be true to the individual,” Boesel says. “Was I really interested in that article or did I spend so much time reading it because I was bored out of my mind?”

Rumored to be part of the forthcoming iWatch, Apple’s patent doesn’t include much context for usage. But it is most likely an attempt at controlling the timing of out-and-about push advertisements, like getting delivered a coupon for a latte when you stroll past your local coffee shop. The filing reads that Apple will include “deliver content that is selected, at least in part, based on the inferred mood.”

But what does a computer know about moods, exactly?

That depends on who you ask. Microsoft researchers have been exploring mood-sensing dresses designed to flap at certain stages of emotion. The company also tried isolating stress, not just affect, with a stress-sensing bra.

But perhaps tracking the most mood is emotion-sensing company–yes, it’s a thing–Affectiva, which recently made a multi-million-dollar deal to standardize mood sensing for Fortune 500 companies’ marketing plans such as Coca-Cola. The company’s software, Affdex, uses facial recognition software to evaluate data of viewers for TV and online programming. But before that, the company tried a wristband, which they hoped would measure skin conductance from the user’s mood, but researchers ended up shelving it.

A huge challenge with mood-based marketing is that the majority target negative moods, which Boesel says can be dangerous to humans who already have sensitive emotions. “In order to capitalize and motivate people to buy you have to trigger something and usually that doesn’t happen in the state of contentment,” she says. “Feelings are very social as we compare our moods to various standards and we do a lot of work on them in our heads.”

Some retail luminaries are bullish on mood sensing, however. Founder of Fab Jason Goldberg has said he believes emotions are the next wave of e-commerce getting closer to actualizing the phrase “retail therapy.”


Dell has also been tooling around in this area with a mood-sensing computer that measures brain waves and offers potential actions, which has been compared to the one used in the movie Her. Dell’s Head of R&D Jai Menon gave the example that the device would be notified if feeling sad and play music to cheer up the user. Since it’s still early in research, we don’t know much more about the study, but a song change is likely not the only bad-mood fix in its arsenal.

Boesel says that although this mood-sensing technology is inevitable, users should be cautious of the big data allure when it comes to their emotions. “There’s this sexy, shiny allure to mood data because it may be able to understand humans, but I don’t think technology is going to solve that problem for us,” she says. “There’s always going to be emotions that are not able to capture no matter how far you push.”