2013-12-17

Co.Labs

A Google Hangouts Plug-in That Makes You A Nicer Person

Using the wizardry of algorithms and facial recognition software, a plug-in for Google Hangouts gauges your body language and words with little pop-ups to boost your conversation etiquette.



Now that cameras come standard on every laptop, tablet, and smartphone, video chat is a standard feature. But we’re still the same needy, anxious, erratic humans--and it shows when we try to communicate digitally face-to-face. A new Google Hangout plug-in is harnessing the power of facial recognition and algorithmic speech pattern software to get us to be nicer, more interested chatters. Can this conversational wingman improve how we talk to people?

Think of it like a play-by-play: The plug-in, Us+, monitors your conversation, tracking bar graphs of Positivity, Self-Absorption, Femininity, Aggression, and Honesty, and occasionally spits out pop-up advice like “Stop talking about yourself so much.” The only drastic action the app seems to take is an automute function for the worst sin of all, talking too much.

Stick with the sportscaster theme. Us+ would probably reinforce good conversation habits like honesty and positive body language, but its on-the-fly social etiquette correction is a slam dunk for professional phone calls--like remote job interviews. Forget the nightmare of body language-less phone interviews: An Us+ conversation prods you into appearing more positive, receptive, and smiley, all great subconscious signals for competence.

Us+ is an open source joint project between artist-programmers Lauren McCarthy and Kyle McDonald, who previously worked together on FriendFlop, a Chrome extension that scrambles the names on your Twitter and Facebook timelines, “dissolving your biases and reminding you that everyone is saying the same shit anyway.” In a similar vein, Us+ asks, is all this technological mediation between myself and everyone else a good thing?

Us+ has tools to measure our conversational habits. Perhaps, McCarthy told Fast.Co Labs in an email, there is a real potential here to use social analysis and feedback to bring us closer together and understand each other more:

“While we all might agree we would like to sound less self-absorbed, what does it mean to sound more feminine or aggressive, and what amount of this do we aim for? What subtle power and control is embedded in the technologies we interact with?” McCarthy said. “When creating or dealing with technologies that augment and change us, it's important that we keep asking ourselves how and why we are determining the end goals.”

The plug-in is available for free (video chat using Us+ straightaway by clicking here) and its API is up on GitHub. Its linguistic analysis is based on Linguistic Inquiry Word Count (LIWC) developed by James W. Pennebaker at UT Austin, and inspired by work done with Sosolimited.