The worlds of ad technology and consumer engagement in games and other online activities moved a little bit closer together today. Affectiva, a startup spun out the MIT Media Lab with a way of measuring emotional responses from online users by tracking their faces, is today announcing a round of funding worth $12 million. It will use the funding to take its technology, first implemented to measure the effectiveness of ads, into the consumer market.
The Series C round was led by Horizons Ventures (investment vehicle for Hutchison’s Li Ka-shing and early backers of Facebook, Spotify, Siri and more) and the Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (KPCB) Digital Growth Fund (backers of Facebook, Twitter, Zynga, Groupon, Square, Klout, Waze, Shazam, Spotify, etc.). Some existing investors, which include WPP, Myrian Capital and the Peder Wallenberg Charitable Trust, also participated.
As part of the financing, Affectiva will be getting two superstar investors among its counselors: Mary Meeker of KPCB will become a board advisor; and Frank Meehan, who had been behind some of the most innovative mobile ventures at Hutchison before he moved over full-time to Horizon, joins the board of directors.
This brings the total funding raised by Affectiva up to $20.2 million, in addition to grants from the National Science Foundation and other endorsements.
The company says that this newest round of funding will be used to develop the ways that its technology can be implemented in future. Up to now, Affectiva has been working largely with the advertising industry to develop tools to measure the effectiveness of advertisements, with a product it calls Affdex. (WPP division Millward Brown is among those using it to test and tweak ads.) It also has created a wearable biometric sensor, branded Q Sensor.
Now the company, founded in 2009 by professor Rosalind W. Picard, Sc.D. and research scientist Rana el Kaliouby, is taking this to the next level. It wants to make the technology in Affdex not only something that can be used to measure user responses to all forms of online video content, but also something that could be incorporated into content outside of ads — for example into games.
“We’re excited to bring the technology to a broader market,” David Berman, chief executive officer at Affectiva, told TechCrunch. “This round is about putting it into the hands of consumers and into the social environment and making it engaging to them.”
El Kaliouby and Picard originally developed the technology, interestingly, as a way of helping people on the autism spectrum make better sense of people’s reactions.
El Kaliouby acknowledges that these days, given how much time we spend solitarily looking at screens, a lot of people don’t have much of a strong reaction to anything. The aim for Affectiva is to make sense of even the smallest gestures. As the saying goes, a picture can tell 1,000 words: “The more expressive you are, the more likely content will go viral,” she notes. “But yes, for the blandest content, your face will show boredom.”
Something else that Affectiva is quietly building up is a big data-style repository of facial content, with clues to what it all means, something that can prove invaluable to content creators in our increasingly globalized world. (And yes, before you submit anything to Affectiva it asks for your permission, as you can see in this demo.)
“It’s interesting to see the results across different cultures,” she says, noting that it has collected facial data on users from more than 20 countries. “We’re building out this database to see how people respond to content across those cultures.” For example, a small gesture between a man and woman nearly unnoticed in one market will cause outrage in another.
Creating ways of measuring user engagement beyond clicks is really only just starting to take off, but you can imagine it might see a lot of demand both as the products become more sophisticated, and metrics like CTRs continue to decline.
Facebook itself made an investment into this area, of sorts, last March when it hired away the two founders of GazeHawk, an eye-tracking startup — although at the time it didn’t acquire the product or technology that went into the original startup. And Facebook’s acquisition of Face.com, the face-recognition startup, meanwhile, also points to how it is thinking about automated systems to better order visual content on the site.
(It should be noted that when I asked Affectiva’s CEO, point blank, if it is talking at all with Facebook, he said no, but he did highlight that its newest investors do have strong inroads there.)
There is another element in this business, however, that is a bit more human. As technology continues to become the central fulcrum of our lives, emotion, and the ability to wrap technology around it, is not to be underestimated:
“The adoption of social, mobile and digital technologies is continuing to accelerate, and we need to bring real emotion back into online interaction,” noted Mary Meeker, a partner at KPCB, in a statement. “Affectiva’s thought leadership and commercial traction make this a compelling investment.”
The company’s Q Sensor product, already used by “hundreds” of universities and corporations, will also see some of the investment. Gven the movement towards the Quantified Self and the rise of gadgets and services to help people track their physical lives better, this is another area to watch.