Liz Gannes

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MIT Emotion-Sensing Start-Up Affectiva Backed by Kleiner Perkins and Horizon Ventures

Affectiva, a start-up that develops products that detect people’s emotional states, has raised $12 million in Series C funding from Li Ka-shing’s Horizon Ventures and Mary Meeker at Kleiner Perkins.

The company spun out of MIT and develops products such as a Webcam-based facial-coding tool and a wristband biometric sensor. The big idea here is that by measuring things like tiny movements in a person’s facial muscles, it’s possible to detect how they actually feel about something, rather than asking them to try to describe it.

Affectiva might have big-time backers now, but its technology was originally developed by MIT professor Rosalind W. Picard and research scientist Rana el Kaliouby to help children with autism understand facial expressions. Now it is primarily used for market research by brands with partners like WPP Millward Brown (WPP is also a backer) and the IPG Media Lab.

The company is broadening its application to any sort of video content — for instance, measuring audience reaction to movie trailers and TV shows — and adding mobile and social support.

CEO Dave Berman said Affectiva has also set up a charitable trust with a big chunk of company stock for the benefit of people who have difficulty regulating their emotions, and that autism spectrum research continues through MIT.

As Affectiva has gathered more data, it has become more adept at detecting subtle expressions, like a smirk, and can now mine data to understand the contrasts in emotion between people of different genders and countries, among other things.

“We have the largest repository of facial responses ever collected in the world,” contended el Kaliouby.

Affectiva customers can see a moment-to-moment score of each participant’s emotion while experiencing their content. (You can try how “Affdex” works by watching Super Bowl ads with your Webcam turned on in a demo on Affectiva’s Web site.)

El Kaliouby said Affectiva tries to be highly conscious about user privacy, and may actually retain less data over time. “We’re less ‘big brother’ than helping people,” she said.

Currently based in Waltham, Mass., Affectiva is also planning to open a San Francisco Bay Area office with the new funding. It had previously raised $7.7 million from WPP, Myrian Capital and the Peder Wallenberg Charitable Trust, and won grants from the National Science Foundation.

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