Introducing Social X-Ray Glasses

A pair of high-tech glasses could help wearers read other people's emotions. But don't start celebrating the arrival of telepathy just yet.

Sally Adee of New Scientist describes "social x-ray specs," glasses outfitted with a camera that analyzes people's expressions and gives the wearer audio and video feedback. The specs can relay whether conversation partners are "confused," "disagreeing," or "interested," and even display a red light if it's time for the wearer to shut up. Researchers have tested the device on people with autism, who used the glasses to improve their perception of others' emotions — some of the improvement apparently persisted even after they took the glasses off, suggesting they could be used as a therapeutic device.

People without autism also struggle with expression recognition — scientists found that average subjects picked up on only 54% of other people's expressions. The glasses were better — but not perfect, averaging just 64%. This poses a problem — the very notion of "social x-ray specs" connotes perfect or at least near-perfect recognition, and users might tend to rely more heavily on the product than its actual accuracy warrants. Also, getting helpful audio input from your glasses in the middle of a conversation seems intrusive enough — what if that feedback was actually wrong? And then there's the question of whether recognizing the expressions defined by the scientists really means better social competency.

Adee also describes another experiment that visually displayed how much members of a group talked, and to whom. Over the course of a cooperative task, seeing this display made group members converge on a common interaction style, with talkers shutting up and shy ones talking more. Adee says this caused "group dynamics to become more even" — but is ironing out all the differences between people necessarily a good thing? Technology can help systematize human interaction, and these systems can be useful. However, we should also be mindful of their limits.

Specs That See Right Through You [New Scientist]

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