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Software helps you stop being a jerk

MIT scientists come up with technology that measures vocal signals to see if you're being annoying on the phone.

Are you a jerk on the phone? You might want to be a bit nicer the next time you take that call.

That's because there's new technology coming out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology called the "Jerk-O-Meter." The software measures stress levels in your voice and rates you on a scale of zero to 100 to let you know just how annoying you might be sounding.

Project leader Anmol Madan, a Ph.D. candidate at the MIT Media Lab, said his wife came up with the product name as they were discussing his research on using speech patterns to measure interest in conversations.

The result is speech software that measures vocal activity and stress during a call and then translates that into a couple of actions. The group is also working on better reading empathy.

"The value that comes from this technology that you can build machines and computers that gauge when people are engaged and interested," Madan said.

In one scenario, the Jerk-O-Meter software sends a text message to you while you are on the phone letting you know that your voice is getting out of control. You can also configure the software to let the person on the other end know that you're busy and therefore might be less attentive.

The concept of the Jerk-O-Meter is based on an unpublished study about the topic, as well as a related MIT paper called "Voices of Attraction" that analyzed 60 five-minute speed-dating sessions. The paper concluded that you could actually measure a person's interest level in a conversation based on verbal and non-verbal clues. The study concluded that a wearable "social signaling meter" is the next likely step.

Madan ran his tests using face-to-face conversations between 200 strangers, paring men with men and women with women. The tests were conducted using a combination of a Linux-based voice over Internet protocol, or VoIP, phone by Zaurus and an algorithm from fellow MIT researcher Ron Caneel.

Now, Madan and his advisers--Alex Pentland, director of the Human Dynamics Research Group at the Media Lab and Carl Marci, director of Social Neuroscience there--have forged IMetrico, a private company designed to capitalize on the research.

Madan said the Jerk-O-Meter could one day be used to gauge customer interest in advertising, research, television and movies. It could also be used to soften up those annoying telemarketers, or at least improve their selling skills. Analyzing a conversation could help a salesman determine whether a consumer will purchase a given product, Madan said.

Madan said the next step is to conduct a separate user study using only phones where the subjects do not face each other, among other tests.

A representative with Nuance, a speech recognition software company that powers those calls to travel information line 511, said the company's products have some similar speech analysis capabilities but nothing as specific as the Jerk-O-Meter.