Digitizing Emotion: MIT Startup, Affectiva, Delivers a New Level of Analytics and Real Time Interaction

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Emotion: a state of feeling; a conscious mental reaction (as anger or fear) subjectively experienced as strong feeling usually directed toward a specific object and typically accompanied by physiological and behavioral changes in the body. 

In today’s technology-driven world emotion, the core characteristic of an individual is often ignored. 

On a daily basis, business decisions are made based on data and analytics. Much of that data is collected online through the actions of consumers. Take advertising for example; an online user searches “Acura” and subsequently sees advertisements for local dealerships on his or her social media feeds and other web pages. Sure, the consumer showed some interest in Acura, but what the retargeting software doesn’t know is if that person had a positive or negative reaction to the brand – information that would be highly valuable when it comes to advertising. 

The emotion behind consumer actions may be the most powerful and important data point there is, but it hasn’t ever really been accounted for. Changing all that is Affectiva, a 6+ year-old startup originated out of the MIT Media Lab in 2009. 

Affectiva is on a mission to digitize emotion. 

Founded by Dr. Rana el Kaliouby, and Dr. Rosalind Picard, Affectiva uses facial expression analysis technology to read emotions in real-time. Through Affdex®, its facial coding and emotion analytics software, the company delivers cost-effective, scalable emotion insight to Fortune 500 companies, market research agencies and entertainment and media publishers. Its SDKs, available for iOS, Android and Windows, let developers integrate emotion-sensing capabilities into their own apps and digital experiences. Affectiva has made the SDK available for a free evaluation so anyone can easily try it out. 

“Emotions matter,” el Kaliouby told me at the company’s Waltham, MA headquarters. “We understand the importance of emotions in every aspect of our lives and we’re bringing those emotions to the digital world. With that, we’re not only going to improve our human to computer interaction, but because humans interact so often through technology, we’re improving human to human interaction as well.” 

Rana el Kaliouby, Affectiva

El Kaliouby’s journey to MIT where she eventually met Picard, her collaborative mind behind Affectiva, was not your typical path from childhood to entrepreneur. 

Born in Cairo, Egypt, el Kaliouby spent much of her childhood in Kuwait, where her family lived until the start of the Gulf War. With the uncertainty surrounding the region, the family evacuated and moved back to Egypt when she was 11 years old. 

“I don’t know what it was, but I remember my competitive nature kicking in right around this time when I was in middle school.” 

That competiveness has remained with her to this day and, of course, helped her over the years. 

Along the way to MIT el Kaliouby attended the top institution in the Middle East, American University in Cairo, where she studied computer science before heading to Cambridge University in England, to secure her PhD in the same field. With her thesis on prototyping emotions, el Kaliouby developed a real-time facial emotion sensing system. The book authored by Picard, Affective Computing, had inspired el Kaliouby’s research behind the project. 

In 2005, Picard made a trip to Cambridge, England. el Kaliouby did not miss the opportunity to meet the author who inspired her all these years. It was Picard however, who came away impressed – she recruited el Kaliouby on the spot to join her as a Post Doc at MIT’s Media Lab. 

"Roz Picard and I proposed building a wearable glass similar to Google Glass to help kids on the autism spectrum. The MIT Media Lab needed funding to get me there. We applied to the National Science Foundation to fund the project. At first it got turned down, but when we demonstrated an early prototype, we were funded and I was off to Boston."  


Fast forward to 2008, after two years as part of MIT and having expanded the product far beyond a tool for fighting and learning about autism, it was time for the startup to spin out of the Media Lab. 

“We had interest from Toyota and P&G for product testing so we met with (Lab Director) Frank Moss to discuss adding to the team. He just told us, ‘No, it’s time to go off on your own.’” 

So in April of 2009, Affectiva was formally incorporated and el Kaliouby and Picard hired two employees, paying them with their own money. Later that year the company brought in its first outside investment, a two million dollar round led by the Peder Wallenberg Trust. 

Since then, the company has raised an additional $18 million over several rounds and continued to expand their offerings. 

Among the startup’s investors are WPP, a British multinational advertising and public relations company, Horizon Ventures and Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers, whose Partner, Mary Meeker, sits on the Affectiva Board.   

Affectiva first made a name for itself and gained significant traction around the field of market research. Today, however, Affectiva is seeking growth opportunities across many verticals, including education, healthcare and even social robotics (think about your home robot being able to understand and react to your emotions and facial reactions). 

“We’re not experts in every field so we’re looking to those who are to use our technology to innovate their respective industries. Pharma companies can improve their medications around mental illness and education systems can improve by better understanding students.” 


Sitting with a passionate, and wildly intelligent, el Kaliouby, I was able to get an understanding of how Affectiva is just scratching the surface. Their technology, especially now with their SDK, can impact any and all industries. It can be used for fun, like the test run I had with their AffdexMe demo app (available in the App Store or GooglePlay); or to communicate with a robot; or to gain user feedback on a new mobile app; or to change the course of medication by actually, truly understanding the way a patient feels. The opportunities are endless: 

“We’re passionate about bringing emotional intelligence to the digital world – a world that will continue to surround us with technology that today is not very empathetic.  I imagine a future in which all our devices have an emotion chip, very much like GPS in our devices today.  With this emotion chip, technology will be able to sense our mood and adapt to it, helping us lead healthier and more productive lives.”


Josh Boyle is Director of Community & Marketing, VentureFizz.  You can follow him on Twitter @jb_sid
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We are pioneers in emotion recognition software. Built on science platform using deep learning and the world’s largest emotion database. This is Emotion AI.

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