updated 4/21/2011 2:51:14 PM ET 2011-04-21T18:51:14

Smile for the camera. It may be keeping track!

For the next six weeks on the campus of MIT, graduate students Javier Hernandez and M. Ehsan Hoque are turning smiles into data, and using that data to chart the mood at different locations on campus.

The Mood Meter, as they call it, uses a sophisticated computer vision algorithm to identify faces as people walk by and to determine whether or not they are smiling. Passersby get the added feedback of seeing themselves on a large screen near the camera, their faces stamped with cartoon representations of their mood.  A meter on the screen shows the percentage of people smiling in a given area, and a map on the Internet displays the happiest buildings on campus in real time.  "Initially, a lot of people find it cute and smile at it anyway, regardless of whether they are happy or not," Hoque told InnovationNewsDaily.

When people become accustomed to the system, Hernandez and Hoque will begin playing with the settings, sometimes turning the projector off as they continue to collect data. These measurements, they explained, will give a more scientific indication of how MIT students are feeling on a normal day.

The two researchers will make all of the data available online in a format that encourages people to analyze for themselves how the collective mood changes with the weather, or with exams or by location.

"We want to make sure all the data is available to the people," Hoque said. "We encourage the community to take ownership of the data.”

A few companies have also taken interest and are working with MIT’s Media Lab to explore consumer applications, Hernandez said. Marketing companies have shown considerable interest in using computer vision systems to image and analyze people’s reactions to products as they look at them in a store.

However, transparency should be a priority with any application, Hernandez said, and analyzing people’s images without their knowledge is off limits. With the MIT students, they have been very clear. The images captured on camera are live-streamed, but never recorded. The only information they retain in the data set is the number and percentage of smiles.

"It's a big no. You always want to tell people what you are doing, so people feel comfortable with the technology," Hoque said.

As cameras become ubiquitous in the urban landscape, some people, like Hernandez and Hoque, are establishing a stringent etiquette for how this technology should be used. There may as well be guidelines, because it’s not going away, they added.

"It's really useful to be aware of this.  This is where the future is headed eventually," Hoque said.

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