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Innovation Economy

Software tries to make emotional connection

By Scott Kirsner
Globe Staff / April 5, 2009
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At a moment when politicians, economists, and executives are wondering what might persuade American consumers to start spending again, a small start-up company called iMotions is putting forward a technological solution.

IMotions, which was founded in Denmark but is setting up a US headquarters in Cambridge, believes it has opened a new door into consumer psychology. When you glance at a new product or an advertisement, what are your feelings toward it? What you might say in a focus group or an interview can encapsulate your rational, right-brained-reaction, but the iMotions system aims to supply insight into your emotional response.

"More than 90 percent of purchases are based on emotional response, not rational thought," says iMotions chief executive Peter Hartzbech. "You want to be rationally convincing, yes, but you also need to be emotionally engaging."

Unlike systems that require plastering sensors on the body to gauge changes in a person's heart rate, breathing, or perspiration, all iMotions asks is that you sit in front of a flat-screen computer monitor. The $30,000 monitor, made by another company, bounces a beam of near-infrared light off of your eyes. IMotions processes the input from the monitor to analyze two key factors: How often are you blinking, and what are your pupils doing?

Essentially, pupil dilation and a faster-than normal blink rate can indicate that you're excited - iMotions prefers to use the terms "engaged" or "involved" - by what you're seeing. The company's pitch is that by showing a new product design, package, or advertisement to consumers earlier in the creative process, and tuning in to this kind of "precognitive" response, companies can figure out what will resonate with consumers more quickly and less expensively than with traditional research. (A sample group of about 30 peo ple is necessary for good statistical results, Hartzbech says.)

The software can also discern what specific areas you are looking at on the screen, in what order.

"This makes the creative process of developing ads, or new packages, more scientific," says Ken Morse, an investor in the company who runs the MIT Entrepreneurship Center. "Any time you can mix science and art, you're going to have a more productive process."

IMotions has raised $9.5 million so far. In addition to Morse, another local angel investor is public relations consultant Andy Miller. Hartzbech says the company is already working with several big consumer product companies in the United States, none of which he can name, as well as a division of British candy maker Cadbury PLC.

Central to the system's appeal, Hartzbech says, is that it delves into the instinctive reaction to a new ad campaign or cellphone design, rather than what someone might consciously report on a survey or in a focus group. "Things like pupil dilation are connected to the limbic system, which is the oldest part of our brains," he says. The company's software, Emotion Tool 2.2, rates emotional involvement with a given image on a scale of zero to 10. (Most reactions are in the three to six range, and print ads tends to grab people more than packaging, in part because they tend to feature images of people. Anything that surpasses seven on the scale tends to be overtly sexual or frightening.)

But one potential drawback to the data the software collects is that "you can't differentiate an intensely positive response from an intensely negative response," says Margaret Bradley, a professor at the University of Florida who is part of the National Institute for Mental Health's Center for the Study of Emotion and Attention. "All you know is that something is emotionally engaging."

In other words, your pupils will likely dilate and your blink rate will increase whether you're looking at a gruesome or appealing image.

Jakob de Lemos, iMotions' chief technology officer, acknowledges the limitation, but says researchers can differentiate a good from bad reaction with an interview or questionnaire after the iMotions test.

And still unproven is the marketing industry's appetite for an emotional scorecard. Paul Cunningham, president of the Florida market research firm CRG Global Inc., calls the iMotion technology "a huge leap forward," but concedes that it can be "a bit more difficult for our clients to really understand how to put it into play, since there's nothing to compare it to in the past." Cunningham's firm has deployed the technology in 12 of its 30 market research facilities in the United States.

Innerscope Research, based in Boston, is trying its own novel approach to gathering data about consumers' unspoken reaction to marketing messages: It asks consumers to don a vest embedded with sensors that can track heart rate, perspiration, respiration, and whether the wearer is leaning forward or leaning back. Founder Carl Marci says those four data points can measure engagement more accurately than just focusing on the eyes.

Another iMotions competitor, Eyetracking Inc., based in San Diego, spun out of San Diego State University. Much of the company's work has been government contracting - examining the eye activity of soldiers to see when they're mentally overloaded by tasks - although lately they've been trying to measure the impact of TV ads and ads placed into video games. But after a decade in existence, the company still has just a handful of employees.

Hartzbech, like most entrepreneurs, is convinced that his company's simplified software and aggressive sales approach will finally get marketers and designers measuring emotional response as a matter of course. "It looks like it's moving relatively fast now," he says. "And once you have a few companies using the technology, others will be forced to follow quickly."

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com.