While Google wants to get all up in your home appliances and your eyeballs, it looks like Apple’s pushing to get straight to the heart of their users. A patent application from the tech giant that was published today and picked up by Apple Insider describes a technology that would infer a user’s mood at any time in order to best serve them relevant ads.
It’s easy to hate. Sure it sounds like creepy mind-reading, but then so did predictive text when it first appeared. Hey, I still get freaked out when I look at a product on one site only to see it later pop up in an ad on another site (how did they know that’s the exact one I wanted?) But if we have to see ads—and they’re pretty useful if we want to get decent content for free—then they might as well be targeted to things we’re interested in.
That said, the patent doesn’t suggest what kind of different things people might be interested in when they’re feeling happy, or depressed, or angry, and that’s where things could get a bit weird. BGR suggested tongue-in-cheek that unhappy people could be targeted with anti-depressant ads, while Tech Crunch proposed ice cream and whiskey might do well among the recently heartbroken.
The whole system laid out in Apple’s patent application makes for pretty compelling reading, if you can get through the stilted language. After all, it’s one thing to target ads based on a user’s age, sex, location, interests and so on—those are hard facts that can usually be found out with a few seconds’ search. But to get in their heads and recognise their emotions at any particular time? That’s a different matter.
At one rather amusing point in the application (humour’s admittedly thin on the ground in patent documents), the applicant considers the potential of asking users what mood they’re in before showing them an ad, but soon dismisses that as a bad idea:
One way of accomplishing this could be to query the user regarding their current mood prior to selecting an item of invitational content. A targeted content delivery system can then select an item of invitational content based on the user's response. However, such an approach could quickly lead to user aggravation, and likely a majority of users reporting a similar mood.
Instead, it lays out technologies that could infer someone’s mood a little less directly. “Mood-associated characteristic data” could include “heart rate, blood pressure, music genre, sequence of apps launched, rate of UI interactions, etc.” Some of those make more sense when you think of Apple products—music data could be taken from iTunes so content delivery systems can get a heads-up when you’re cracking out the emo records, and app behaviour could be sourced from iPhone usage.
As for heart rate and blood pressure—and the patent application also mentions adrenaline, perspiration, and temperature—that clearly suggests a potential wearable tech element (and something more sophisticated than a mood ring). They could be tasks for the yet-to-materialize iWatch, BGR suggests. The documents also mention the possibility of a camera to recognise facial expressions.
That’s all very clever, but one major issue is that people present different moods in different ways. Therefore, the system would start by compiling one or more “baseline mood profiles” for individual users based on data collected over an initial period. Then, a variation from a person’s usual mood at any given time could be used to infer how they’re feeling at that point.
And in case tracking a person’s actual behaviour isn’t enough, the system could incorporate external events too. “For example, if a tragic event occurred, an inferred mood can be downgraded. In another example, if the day corresponds to a national holiday, an inferred mood can be elevated,” the patent suggests. “In yet another example, if the weather is particularly nice, an inferred mood can be elevated. Additional uses of user independent mood-associated data items are also possible."
Of course, this is just at the patent application stage, so we’re not likely to see it any time soon. Add to that the obvious privacy concerns of a company storing vast amounts of such highly personal data, as Apple Insider points out, and there’s clearly a lot of thought that would need to go into developing anything of the sort.
But put all the technologies mentioned in the paper together, and it’s a rather thrilling reminder of how emotionally intelligent computers could one day be.