Emotional HCI

Just read a very interesting and provocative paper entitled “How emotion is made and measured” by Kirsten Boehner and colleagues.  The paper provides a counter-argument to the perspective that emotion should be measured/quantified/objectified in HCI and used as part of an input to an affective computing system or evaluation methodology.  Instead they propose that emotion is a dynamic interaction that is socially constructed and culturally mediated.  In other words, the experience of anger is not a score of 7 on a 10-point scale that is fixed in time, but an unfolding iterative process based upon beliefs, social norms, expectations etc.

This argument seems fine in theory (to me) but difficult in practice.  I get the distinct impression the authors are addressing the way emotion may be captured as part of a HCI evaluation methodology.  But they go on to question the empirical approach in affective computing.  In this part of the paper, they choose their examples carefully.  Specifically, they focus on the category of ‘mirroring’ (see earlier post) technology wherein representations of affective states are conveyed to other humans via technology.  The really interesting idea here is that emotional categories are not given by a machine intelligence (e.g. happy vs. sad vs. angry) but generated via an interactive process.  For example, friends and colleagues provide the semantic categories used to classify the emotional state of the person.  Or literal representations of facial expression (a web-cam shot for instance) are provided alongside a text or email to give the receiver an emotional context that can be freely interpreted.  This is a very interesting approach to how an affective computing system may provide feedback to the users.  Furthermore, I think once affective computing systems are widely available, the interpretive element of the software may be adapted or adjusted via an interactive process of personalisation.

So, the system provides an affective diagnosis as a first step, which is refined and developed by the person – or even by others as time goes by.  Much like the way Amazon makes a series of recommendations based on your buying patterns that you can edit and tweak (if you have the time).

My big problem with this paper was that a very interesting debate was framed in terms of either/or position.  So, if you use psychophysiology to index emotion, you’re disregarding the experience of the individual by using objective conceptualisations of that state.  If you use self-report scales to quantify emotion, you’re rationalising an unruly process by imposing a bespoke scheme of categorisation etc.   The perspective of the paper reminded me of the tiresome debate in psychology between objective/quantitative data and subjective/qualitative data about which method delivers “the truth.”  I say ‘tiresome’ because I tend towards the perspectivist view that both approaches provide ‘windows’ on a phenomenon, both of which have advantages and disadvantages.

But it’s an interesting and provocative paper that gave me plenty to chew over.