Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Research into faces

Grad school! This is a post about grad school... Kind of/mostly.

My research interests have recently led me to attempt a project combining computer vision facial analysis technology* and the intuition, generosity, and curiosity of the crowd. The "crowd" here is the crowd implicit in "crowdsourcing". Lots more ideas opinions on that, and why I want crowdsourcing to be way more than it is right now, but that's not what this post is about. This post is about faces!

*Briefly! Computer vision is only mediocre at faces. Computers can detect front-facing faces in a lot of images, and sort of detect smiles and a few other emotions when the conditions are just right, but there is soooo much more that could be done, just by having better training data, for starters.

face tracker!
Face tracker from Jason Saragih, now maintained by Kyle McDonald

Faces are this weird thing that almost all humans seem to have. Right out in front where other humans can see it. I have one. It's alright, now that I'm not in the middle of puberty. Honestly, aside from that I have one of my very own, and I like to use this little website called "Facebook" to look at other people's photos of their faces, I didn't get what was so compelling about faces.

Until recently...! This is what transpired:

0) Computers and things. 

The first part of this was that I got someone to explain to me how other people do research with computers and faces, and then I built a vision system that actually kind of worked. That was the meme impression quiz I blogged about a little while ago. Nothing like a computer doing what you want it to do based on your freshly minted skills to get you thinking you can bend it to your will even more later.

1) I read a book by Paul Ekman, Emotion in the Human Face

Do I recommend you read it? Maybe, or you can just have me vaguely tell you what I liked about it. So, this book was published in 1972 (according to Wikipedia, this was right around the time Human Subject Research Legislation/Institutional Review Board was cropping up) and it starts off like this (major paraphrasing): "When I approached this field of face psychology research, I was a little pessimistic because it seemed like there were no consistent results to be had; the face was just a big, confusing jumble of fleshy bits." ... "But then I started doing my own experiments, and wouldn'tchyaknow, my results were just fine and dandy! Turns out, there's plenty of good work to be done in this space, but everyone before was just messing it all up. Here, let me write a book pointing out how everyone got a big fat F on the scientific method, but if we take everyone's experiments together and correlate results and squint our eyes a bit, we can kind of get something reasonable."

Oh, also, the experiments (pre-IRB) were like, "What faces do people make when they're about to be shocked, or when they're harassed and stressed out by an interviewer and subsequently soothed, or when they witness (or perhaps partake in?) decapitating a live rat?" Or, "What faces do babies make when they're vertically displaced [dropped] a little bit?" (It seemed like all two babies were kind of peeved, no matter the stimulus.)

I've learned some actual things, like the difference between facial behaviors (what's the face is doing physically) and emotions (which may or may not be shown on the face). And the difference between judgment studies and component studies. And how in the past, people were mainly trying to verify that the face does contain information about emotion, and then determine how general/universal that information is.

Obviously, 40 years have passed since the book was written, so now my task is to find out what the heck people have been doing since then, and what's neat about it, and how I can improve it further.  I mean, aside from getting so famous from researching micro-expressions that they make TV shows about you.

2)  I started watching a TV drama about Paul Ekman.

Lie to Me. It's so much fun! It's a prime time drama show that was on from 2009-2011 that has kind of the same medical mystery spin as House, but it's based on that face psychologist I was just reading about! I like when the characters spew out familiar textbook information to each other for the viewers' benefit, like, "DID YOU KNOW?! You can tell a fake smile from a real smile by looking at the crinkles around the eyes!" Thanks for the tip, sidekick scientist lady!

They should really make more TV shows about scientists. Not documentaries, but gripping, compelling dramas. Like the PhD Movie. Aaanndd... nope, can't think of any more examples.

In conclusion, faces are pretty neat, and the more I learn, the more interesting they become. I'll leave you with what a strange photo of myself underground in a cave in Slovenia.

kathleen in a cave making a bad face
This is one of the least flattering photos I have on the internet.


  1. Paul Ekman! Microexpressions dude! One of the few names of contemporary psychologists I remember from college readings. He was brought up in my Deception, Brain, and Behavior class, though I probably only remember him because the IKEA lamp commercial and clips of The Incredibles and the Muppets were played during that lecture.

  2. Did you mention IKEA commercial (poooor lamp) and muppets to me at the time? I want to say it sounds familiar, but it could be any number of things making me think that. I definitely think about you, Stephanie, and Liz taking the class (was it criminal psychology?) taught by the colleague, friend, and/or nemesis of Zimbardo while I'm working on human subjects paperwork. Ha ha, my time in close proximity to psych majors is finally paying off!

  3. That was shortly after settling for psychology since literature was such an abysmal failure, so I probably did bring it up since I was grasping at straws for anything interesting to share about my classes. The class you're thinking of, though, is Psych and Law taught by Craig Haney which I never took, sadly.

    I'm just happy to see someone has some use for this stuff. :)

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