Lights, Camera, Truth

Posted on Tuesday, May 5, 2015

By Phil Jenkins

Abdulmotaleb El Saddik

We are often encouraged to speak from the heart, but in reality, our hearts speak for us all the time.

New technology being developed at uOttawa’s School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science will be able to detect what our hearts are saying by simply putting us in front of a camera.

Professor Abdulmotaleb El Saddik is leading research that will enable video cameras—whether they’re high-definition television broadcast cameras or mid-resolution laptop cameras—to measure a range of human emotions, revealing whether people are stressed, anxious, calm, happy or sad, as well as whether they’re being truthful. 

Each heartbeat sends blood to our skin—especially our foreheads and cheeks—creating momentary changes in the skin’s colour that are imperceptible to the naked eye.  Marrying image enhancement technology to software his own graduate students have developed, El Saddik and his team are able to amplify the skin colour change so that it appears red during a heartbeat and green in between beats. This allows them to calculate heart rates, and most importantly, heart rate variability, which is one of the strongest clues to our emotional state. And it’s all accomplished by using a simple video camera, without a need for the wires or probes that are currently used in electrocardiogram or polygraph tests.   

Using algorithms informed by medical and psychological data in order to map, estimate, and classify emotions, El  Saddik’s team is now working to understand what our heart rate variability—driven by our nervous system—truly reveals in emotional terms.  Once the technology is fine-tuned, it will have applications beyond aiding police, for example, or border guards (to monitor travellers’ nerves at customs checks). El Saddik says, “You could use this on yourself, too. If you are working and are stressed, you could self-diagnose, and give yourself a break, or listen to some calming music. Or, imagine using this technology and applying it to a televised political debate.

First published in the Gazette

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