Smiling woman on computer

Photo via Paul Bradbury/GettyImages (Licensed)

Your computer watches to make sure you keep smiling.

Digital tools are increasingly trying to help us be more creative with our words, and now there's one that tries to actively manage our emotions, too. 

There are many projects aiming to improve or augment the writing experience, from the Hemingwrite digital typewriter, Scrivener software that organizes research and writing, author Robin Sloan's predictive AI writing tool, to The Most Dangerous Writing App that will just delete everything if you stop writing. 

As engineer and artificial intelligence researcher Samim Winiger notes, the writing tools that exist emphasize the physicality of the writing process, not the mentality. Emotion and our mental state play a huge role in producing content, and the digital tools available for creators today don't focus on the feeling that goes into creativity. 

Winiger created Don’t Worry Be Happy, an "emotion enforcing text editor." It uses face-tracking tech to determine your emotional state, and if you don't stay happy, your work is deleted right before your eyes. He describes the website in a post on Medium

Don’t Worry Be Happy is a experiment, exploring how to build creative systems that actively influence our mental state. It playfully promotes awareness and enforces mental-states during the creative process.

You have to give the site access to your webcam, and software will analyze your face and assign it an emotion in real-time—happy, sad, surprised, or angry. If you stay in a negative mental state for too long, then your work is deleted. 

You can select from five different timed writing sessions, from 30 seconds to 10 minutes. You'll see a countdown when you're writing, and if you're sad or angry, a red bar will appear at the top of your screen until you've stayed mad for too long and lose your work. 

Samim Winiger

As Winiger explained in an interview via direct message, the emotion detection via face tracking is done client-side in your browser via a Javascript library, so nothing is tracked or saved unless you choose to publish your text story, if you make it all the way through.

I tried a few times, and apparently my "in the writing zone" face might be read as "angry;" I kept losing my work. Happiness is the only emotion that will get you through the program, because Winiger wants to highlight the positive health benefits of happiness and laughter, and explore how software can help remind us to stay in a positive mental place.

"Happiness is a primary emotional state, with great benefits for creativity and our body," he said. 

Using the website really does make you feel better. Because you're forcing yourself to smile to avoid losing all your work, it boosts, at least momentarily, how you're feeling. Research has shown that smiling, whether you want to or not, actually decreases stress. And Winiger's funny little tool is a perfect example of how technologists can translate that into actionable content. 

"There is a silent revolution unfolding of 'mental-state aware' apps," he said. "The potential is there to radically improve learning times during creative tasks—which is an exciting vision."

While it's a neat tool to play with, it does raise questions about the capabilities of tech to read and potentially modify human behavior, and what that means for the erosion of our privacy. Emotion recognition is not a new idea, but the implementation of the tech is still in its early stages. If companies, services, and software are watching you, how do you react?

If you're writing, maybe you just keep smiling.

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