ILHAIRE in New Scientist

Posted on Tue 04 Feb 2014by by Harry Griffin
Last update 05-02-2014

The ILHAIRE project was recently featured on the New Scientist website. The article describes the work done at UCL in capturing natural laughter-related body movements and its application to visual laughter synthesis, such as the Living ActorTM characters developed by ILHAIRE partners Cantoche. This welcome piece of publicity came about from the “CS Unveiled” open day at the Computer Science Department UCL, which invited visitors to come and see the work and innovations at a world-class Computer Science department. As part of the open day, Harry Griffin presented the ILHAIRE project alongside UCLIC colleagues who presented the EMO+PAIN project. Researchers on these projects at UCLIC use similar methodology (motion capture for recognition of emotion), but the contrasting applications (laughter for ILHAIRE; chronic pain in EMO+PAIN) serve to demonstrate the flexibility and power of this approach. You can read an award-winning paper on laughter detection and perception authored by members of both projects here.

The relationship between scientists and the media is an interesting one. The value of public engagement in science is increasingly recognised and researchers are encouraged (and funded) to dedicate time to it. Articles in popular science publications and the general media are fantastic tools for this. They invite readers to further investigate scientific areas in which they are interested. Blogs such as this one are often the next port of call, since they are a direct channel of communication from researchers to those members of the public who want information direct from the horse’s mouth. Open days and science festivals, such as the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition bring researchers and the public face-to-face and can be hugely rewarding for both sides.  The public also have increasing access to peer-reviewed articles, for example through the Open Access movement, which aims to make previously costly journals freely available to researchers and the public in order to foster better research and greater public involvement in science.

Unfortunately the first contact in this journey of engagement can be hazardous; there are many good science writers out there, but science as presented to the public in non-academic publications is sometimes inappropriately cut up into bite-size ideas and framed around a simple, attention-grabbing headline, although this is often the responsibility of an editor, rather than the journalist who writes the main text. The increased impact this approach offers can be at the cost of accuracy and subtlety. Journalists work to deadlines that seem remarkably fast compared to the duration of a research project. The information given to journalists, sometimes in a brief interview, is filtered through their own scientific experience when they come to reproduce it for publication. Caveats and qualifications that are vital in science are sometimes omitted. Results and quotations can be presented out of the context of the previous research and the wider project. Scientists, like any profession, don’t wish to see their work or themselves misrepresented, so articles targeted at the general public are often anticipated with some trepidation.

Happily this article gives a good indication of work within the small part of the ILHAIRE project that it describes and the authors were happy to quickly correct to minor technical errors. The headline “Motion-captured laughs make animations more amusing”, is catchy but perhaps over-generalised, since making the animations simply amusing is not the specific aim of this aspect of the project nor the project as a whole. The main body of the article does accurately describe the methodology and the overall aim: to endow avatars with laughter-related behaviour (in this case body-movements) to enhance their perceived naturalness and efficacy in human-avatar interactions. As mentioned in the article, contagion – both in the sense of laughter inducing laughter and people mimicking each other’s laughter behaviour – is a major research focus in the project’s final year, particularly for UCL. We hope that adding natural body movements may make the animations more amusing in the sense of being more contagious. Hopefully with further exposure in the press, more people will see these results and many others to come in ILHAIRE’s final year. Watch this space!

Harry Griffin