Braille for Faces: Using a Camera and Tactile Display, System Lets Blind "See" Others' Emotions

Facial Expressions Say a Lot Without Saying Anything

Florence Devouard

It's one thing to tell someone how you feel, but seeing is believing. So their inability to see the face and body language of other people can potentially leave visually impaired people working with a communication deficit. A novel thesis project at Umeå University in Sweden has created a sort of Braille codification for emotions using a tactile display and a Web cam to allow blind people to "see" emotion as they are displayed on a subject's face.

Visual information is relayed through the tactile display as a series of vibrations that are sequentially activated to provide a stream of emotional information as a conversation meanders. As the subject's face turns from happiness to concerned to interested, the user is fed different signals that allow him or her to infer the changing emotional status through tactile sensation delivered by a forearm sleeve.

Of course, a user must first learn how to interpret the tactile information, but using one's own face as a guide, that's not so difficult. A visually impaired person sits in front of the setup with his or her own face as the subject. By going through a range of emotional gestures, the person can quickly teach his or her brain to associate certain gestures and faces with the vibrations he or she feels.

The research has thus far focused mainly on how best to convey those facial tics and non-verbal cues into data the computer vision could read and translate into tactile data, but with the hard part out of the way, the research group is looking at further commercial applications for the tech, some that are aimed at seeing people as well.

How cool would it be if you could tell that a text from your significant other was either angry or sweet simply by the way your phone vibrates in your pocket? Or keep up with a baseball game during dinner simply through the vibrations of your mobile device? You don't have to answer that question -- a gesture into your Web cam will do.