New device tells smiles from frowns — even through a mask

When you wear a mask, other people often can’t tell if you’re smiling or frowning. But a new device called C-face can. It learns our facial expressions by watching the motion of our cheeks.

Tuochao Chen gapes. Then he sneers. Then he grimaces. As he makes faces, he wears a device that looks like a pair of headphones. But instead of playing sound, it points cameras toward his cheeks. The cameras only see the sides of his face. Surprisingly, that’s enough facial real estate to tell a sneer from a smile, or a laugh from a frown. A computer system connected to the headphones can figure out what Chen’s eyes and mouth look like without seeing them directly.

It works even if Chen wears a face mask. The system can tell if he’s smiling or frowning behind it.

Chen studies computer science in the lab of Cheng Zhang at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. Zhang came up with the idea for this system. He calls it C-face. That “C” stands for contour. It’s also a pun because the device can “see” your face.

His team’s goal is to create technology that can better understand people. Right now, our devices are mostly clueless about how we’re feeling or what we need. But over time, more devices will understand us. Zhang hopes that “everything will be smart in the future.” For example, your phone might recognize when your face looks upset and suggest calming music. For your phone to know you’re upset, however, it has to somehow capture that information from you. Such as from a camera

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