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Feeling down? Let computer-generated emotions help

Turn that frown upside down. Researchers create a virtual "mirror" that uses software to brighten your facial expression. It could help you feel happier, they say -- and make you drop more cash.

The computer-generated image on the left can make this woman's reflection smile.
Video screenshot by Leslie Katz/CNET

Smiling (even when it's a forced grin) can reduce stress and improve your mood, recent research indicates. But do you still get those boosts with a computer-generated smile?

Building on the idea that physiological changes can generate psychological ones, Japanese researchers have developed a setup that creates "computer-generated emotion by letting people recognize pseudo-generated facial expressions as changes to their own facial expressions."

In other words, the "Emotion Evoking System" can make it look like that reflection of yourself you see in the mirror is smiling or frowning when you're not, thus potentially altering your mood when you take a gander at the looking glass.

Developed by Shigeo Yoshida and his colleagues at the University of Tokyo's Graduate School of Interdisciplinary Information Studies, the setup consists of a camera and a display. The camera captures and tracks users' faces, transforming their expressions in real time using an image-processing technique that can do things like turn the corners of the mouth up or down and change the configuration of the area around the eyes.

The team, which is presenting its work at the Siggraph computer-graphics conference now under way in Anaheim, Calif., says a study of 21 volunteers trying the "incendiary reflection" system found a direct correlation between participants' computer-generated facial expressions and their moods, with volunteers reporting feeling happier when their onscreen visages cracked a fake smile.

"This suggested that we could artificially manipulate emotional states," they say, an observation that would seem to make the system a natural fit for virtual-reality mood therapy.

In a research paper titled "Manipulation of an emotional experience by real-time deformed facial feedback," the scientists suggest their technology could be applied to movies, museum exhibitions, and games as a direct way to evoke emotion. And futuristically minded marketers might want to note the assertion that the system could extend to "preference decision" (read: shopping choices). Dressing room mirrors, the researchers say, could one day subtly tweak shoppers' reflections to make them look (and feel) happier and more in the mood to buy.

Currently, the prototype system generates just two facial expressions -- the simple "Smiley Face" and "Sad Face" -- but I, for one, eagerly await the day when its emotional repertoire extends to "Grumpy Face," "Disappointed Face," and "That-Joke-Totally-Sucked Face."

You might not feel like smiling, but your digital reflection does. Video screenshot by Leslie Katz/CNET

(Via New Scientist)