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What kinds of abstract colors, shapes, and other compositional elements could be used to indicate various emotions?

My story features an artificial intelligence that’s embodied in an industrial practical body design, not a humaniform body. The head is an ellipsoid with a grey zone for the eye region. It resembles a motorcycle helmet, with the visor part covering sensory apparatus, and the rest of it — what would cover the mouth and cheeks of a human — is a display surface.

As I’ve mentioned before, the manufacturer doesn’t want to ship a creepy and potentially dangerous psychopath, right? So they will arrange the expression of “feelings” to be an honest and a reliable indication of the AI’s motives and understanding, on a subconscious level that it can’t override.

In this particular design, the emotions are shown as patterns on the “face” comprised of the display surface. I’m thinking along the same lines as the icons assigned people who have not specified an image here on SE, which are automatically generated from a seed and are varied and unique.

The general appearance should make sence to humans, in an intuative poetic way. Furthermore, the different design elements should be able to be combined to reflect mixed states. For example, a background color is clearly orthogonal to a set of lines, and the lines can be straight and even, wavy, or jagged.

I’d like to include descriptions of the display as a unique “colorful” part of the story.

Joe’s helm bore irregular jagged red lines in front (where the mouth would be if a human head were under the helmet), and the sides blushed with foggy patches of bright red and dark blue. Although I hated to disturb him in such a mood, I had to deal with the issue quickly. Obviously, he’d already heard the news. …

Rather than just making up evocative images willy-nilly, I think I should have some general schema in mind first.

Would you suggest some mappings between graphical design elements and specific emotions or states of mind? And, how can these be combined, if they are not independent types of features?


Note: the screen is not going to show Emoticons or any coherent pictures including character glyphs or photos.

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    $\begingroup$ As far as I know there is an entire field about Color theory, specifically Color harmony. The biggest problem I see is that we have a different view on "What does a color represent?" depending on our individual and cultural background. It's important to think about the specific target audience when writing something like that. Some general advice can be taken from animals: Aposematism is a warning color or pattern that animals form to show they are dangerous and unprofitable as prey $\endgroup$ – Secespitus May 11 '17 at 8:19
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    $\begingroup$ The associations of colors with emotions are culture-specific: for example, mourning is associated with black in European cultures and their descendants, but with white in some Oriental cultures; royalty is associated with yellow in the classical Chinese culture, but with purple or crimson in European cultures. Even the perception of color is culture-dependent: for example in Russian dark blue and light blue are two unrelated colors with separate names, whereas in Japanese blue and green share one single name. Not to mention that there is no good Latin word for "blue in general". $\endgroup$ – AlexP May 11 '17 at 10:01
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    $\begingroup$ In Iain Bank's "Culture" series of sci-fi novels AI drones use color auras (e.g. a quick flash of red) to indicate emotional response, much as a human might e.g. blush or show a flash on anger in their face. But like human responses, interpretation and use of these may vary from individual to individual. Drones would also e.g. "wobble" or make some other gesture (they float in air normally) as part of non-verbal communication with people. Like human-human interaction we learn to interpret these as we develop and they can be used e.g. sarcastically or deceptively - it's context dependent. $\endgroup$ – StephenG May 11 '17 at 11:26
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    $\begingroup$ Many of these answers give good points. Various shapes can communicate meanings, for example jagged shapes to show anger. Many people have made the point that colors would mean different things to different cultures, but that is not too great a problem. From your example text, it seems likely that the AI can talk. The color settings could be linked to the language settings. For example, if speaking English and mourning, the face would include black, but if speaking Japanese and mourning, the face would show white. Likewise other cultural references could be included. $\endgroup$ – BillThePlatypus May 11 '17 at 15:16
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    $\begingroup$ I have this image in my head of a visor displaying emoticons. :) for happy, :( for sad, etc. It's fine if your robot displays :P... but when it shows >.< you might want to give it some space. $\endgroup$ – Ghotir May 11 '17 at 16:11
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You want something that represents emotion but not to try to make expressions too realistic (be wary of the uncanny valley).

One problem may be cultural associations. Colours, as were mentioned in the comments, are pretty good but do vary based on cultural background.

Shapes, however, can represent facial expressions - like emoticons in text :) - but also have a general trend of crossing cultural boundaries (see the bouba/kiki effect see below). Sharpness is associated with negative emotions, roundness with content or happiness. The speed of motion could also be translated into agitation, excitement or depression and reluctance.

Bouba and kiki shapes

The picture above shows an example of two shapes used in the study of the bouba/kiki effect. If you attempt to attach a name, bouba or kiki to those shapes you will probably choose the softer sounding "bouba" to the round shape and the "kiki" will be the sharp edged shape. This effect is far from limited to soft and round shapes.

Interestingly it was found:

Individuals who have autism do not show as strong a preference. Where typically developing individuals agree with the standard result 88% of the time, individuals with autism agree only 56% of the time.

Given that autism is "characterized by impaired social interaction, verbal and non-verbal communication" we may be able to infer that this could be considered a form of body language.

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    $\begingroup$ Consider embedding bouba kiki image here. I generally dislike excessive images in posts but this one is simple, informative and has compatible license. $\endgroup$ – Mołot May 11 '17 at 13:49
  • $\begingroup$ Heh, I just saw a Dr. Who episode where the robots used emogis on a face screen. $\endgroup$ – ShadoCat May 11 '17 at 17:21
  • $\begingroup$ @ShadoCat Episode two ("Smile") of the 2017 series, and this probably should've been a comment on the question, except for that the OP had already watched this episode. $\endgroup$ – wizzwizz4 May 11 '17 at 19:12
  • $\begingroup$ @Mołot Advice taken, a little extra information added in on the effect too. $\endgroup$ – Lio Elbammalf May 11 '17 at 20:17
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    $\begingroup$ @JDługosz Sure the letters are shaped like that but maybe they're shaped like that because the sounds remind us of those shapes. For a colour scheme I would suggest white on black I suppose. Depends on the complexity of your design you want. $\endgroup$ – Lio Elbammalf May 12 '17 at 16:03
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Since emotion and face recognition is deeply coded in our brains while learning an abstract code would require proper training, a good solution can be to have the screen on the visor displaying emoticons or even human faces representing the wished emotion.

As a bonus you can customize it to "local" faces and/or to a given gender to further increase the acceptance.

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  • $\begingroup$ As far as readability goes this is definitely the best option. It's literally what emojis are for... $\endgroup$ – adaliabooks May 11 '17 at 10:22
  • $\begingroup$ That’s like the recent Doctor Who episode. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz May 11 '17 at 11:21
  • $\begingroup$ In any case, that's not an answer. I'm not looking for alternatives or asking if this display is the best idea; I'm asking for emotion—design-element mappings. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz May 11 '17 at 15:01
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    $\begingroup$ @JDługosz, I fail to see which part of " :-) " is not "abstract graphic" $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica May 11 '17 at 17:39
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As has been mentioned in the comments the use of colour alone may not be a good indicator as different colours have different connotations depending on the culture.

Since you want a somewhat complicated pattern what if the mood was indicated by the feeling of the picture. Brighter colours is a stronger feeling, so anger or happiness is bright whereas sadness would probably be dull colours.
A pleasing image (symmetrical, rounded edges maybe) is a positive emotion whereas a more jarring unpleasant image represents negative emotions (sharp edges and irregularity is anger).

There would definitely still be a potential for misunderstanding, but this is going to be true of any method of communicating. In the UK (and most Western countries as far as I know) everyone knows nodding your head is yes and shaking it is no, but other cultures have different meanings for these actions.
Basic emotional responses (blushing say) should be fairly universal for people, but there are still some people who (for whatever reason) don't understand or pick up on these cues, so it should be expected that not everyone can correctly interpret your AI's emotional state.

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A lot of these answers talk about how colors and shapes can mean different things based on region.

But if it's a standard schema across all robots, then that doesn't matter as much, because people will learn what that means.

If I'm from the US and go traveling through Europe and Asia, I don't want the schema to change because then I won't know if the robot is happy or about to blow its circuits.

You can try to make the schema as culture neutral as possible, possibly by using imagery that is not as abstract.

Fire is hot everywhere, and it looks the same everywhere. If the robot is getting mad then imagery that invokes thoughts of fire would apply everywhere.

The sun is warm and happy. There is a theory I've read that the human smile is an imitation of looking at the sun.
Images that invoke thoughts of the sun could show happiness.

Falling water, like rain and tears, is generally associated with sadness, and so could be used.

The idea is that these robots would have their own emotional queues, and people would learn what they mean, so long as they mean the same thing everywhere.

Human sadness looks the same everywhere in all cultures, so it should be that way for robots too.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 I was going to suggest something along those lines. The manufacturers would presumably provide a manual telling you which emotion each image represents, and you'd only have to look it up a few times before knowing it off by heart. $\endgroup$ – F1Krazy May 11 '17 at 15:52
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    $\begingroup$ @F1Krazy And like dealing with any new culture, the more you interact with it, the more you'll notice subtleties. There is a difference between sadness and despair, though they look similar at first glance. So both might use a falling water theme, but once you're around them for a while you'd be able to pick out the differences. $\endgroup$ – AndyD273 May 11 '17 at 16:00
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I'm picturing a full color oscilloscope screen. Different colors represent different categories of emotion. Red would be the joyful/angry and the smoothness or jaggedness of the circle would indicate the positive or negative aspects. The thickness and/or number of traces of that color would indicate intensity. So, a thin red trace with one or two points, would indicate a mild annoyance that just isn't worth dealing with and multiple smooth red curving shapes indicating extreme joy. You could have multiple colors displayed at once for complex displays of emotion. This would get around the East/West issues with the color Red. If the jaggies show up on one area of the loop, you might be able to tell which person in a group caused it. So, if you're telling it bad puns, that jag is pointing at you.

Whatever scheme you pick will likely be difficult for adults to learn but any children growing up with robots will find it natural and get more detail from the display.

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Colours are key

There are links between colour and psychological response, it is possible (as the site shows) to build several personality types from an array of colours.

Studies:

The studies (below and linked) were carried out to test the Wright theory of colour which underpins the whole thing.

Experiment 1. The objective of the experiment was to investigate the connection between adjective combinations and colour combinations. Four groups of adjectives and 4 groups of colours were selected in accordance with the Wright theory. Each time, observers were shown four groups of colours and one group of adjectives (emotional/human characteristics) and asked to choose which group of colours best captured the group of adjectives.

Colour theory - experiment 1

The results were remarkable - achieving 77% overall agreement with the Wright Theory, and over 90% agreement in places. However, perhaps the most striking discovery from this project was the remarkable level of agreement among all observers - reaching over 92% in places - demonstrating that response to colour is not as dependent on age, gender or culture as was previously thought.

Application

Whether the a screen contains shapes or not (your prerogative, it could even just be strip lighting) the colours used could influence the impression the user gathers from interaction. Much like body language this would be a method of non-verbal communication available to the robot.

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  • $\begingroup$ So what’s the answers on the illustration? I wonder what adjectives this site’s design maps to! $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Jul 12 '17 at 1:16
  • $\begingroup$ @JDługosz I only know as much as the site tells us, I just wanted to put as much in my answer as I could in case the site goes down. My guess (from their descriptions of colours) would be that C is reserved, D is modest, A is gracious and B is formal. I would say the site is dreamliight - In corporate design, these colours are most appropriate where calm order, timeless elegance and delicacy are required. $\endgroup$ – Ludo Jul 12 '17 at 8:01
  • $\begingroup$ that dreamlight website sounds like a bunch og hooie. I don’t think you can tell personality type by someone’s hair and eye color and cheekbone shape. Identifying colors with connotations to seasons of the year might make sense but it depende on your reagon, and those conotations can vary 180° between individuals! Does winter make you excited about snowboarding, or dred the morning before work because you have to scrape the ice from the car before dawn? $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Jul 12 '17 at 16:30
  • $\begingroup$ Hmm, the illustration you show is not matching! Rather, all the words are a group and the answer is “A”. The second test, finding the example with a non-matching color, is easily explained because the sets that go together have similar saturation/brightness — nothing about the hue at all. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Jul 12 '17 at 16:34
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Well, I explain my answer with an example. I think you should use a pattern of semi-alphabetic colored lines or splotches and so on. An example of where something like this is used is the sequels to Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama. The Octospiders use colored lines that run across the sides of their head to express emotions, words, and various other things.

As far as colors themselves go, there are some cultural boundaries, but studies have shown that blue is sad, red is angry, green is happy, amber is cautious or suspicious, and so on.

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    $\begingroup$ Can you elaborate on that with examples on which “colored lines” indicate which emotion? Are different emotions indicated by different parameters so they are easily used together to define the line? If yiu're just pointing out another work that used a similar idea, you should do that with a comment. Answer posts are for answers. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz May 11 '17 at 13:08
  • $\begingroup$ "but studies have shown" I asked my friend Jeff what he thought each colour meant. My study showed that pink is evil, blue is happy and green is unwell. Please cite these studies. $\endgroup$ – wizzwizz4 May 11 '17 at 19:17
  • $\begingroup$ @wizzwizz4 I remember reading it somewhere but cannot remember where. It was American based though, and I can see by the fact that you use the spelling "colour" you are from another English speaking country. $\endgroup$ – scifiguy May 11 '17 at 20:09
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I wonder why you would want to use an abstraction on a humanoid face. It is freaky. Humans are hardwired to see and interpret facial features.

You should use facial features. But I can imagine the frownbot / smileyface look provides little narrative opportunity.

Instead, sample faces from movies. The entire human emotional range has been depicted in the movies, up close, thousands of times. The face of the robot would show the face of an actor emoting appropriately. I like the idea that some of these clips would be recognizable to the person seeing them and some not.

You could also have the AI play music attuned to its mood. Music is more culturally specific than faces but still well matched to various emotional states. Plus this would lend itself to the movie version.

I worry this scheme will underuse the wealth of romantic faces / music but maybe your AIs get romantic too.

ADDENDUM It looks like by @Dlugosz comments my answer was misunderstood. From the OP

"The head is an ellipsoid with a grey zone for the eye region. It resembles a motorcycle helmet, with the visor part covering sensory apparatus, and the rest of it — what would cover the mouth and cheeks of a human — is a display surface."

enter image description here from inventorspot.com

"...embodied in an industrial practical body design, not a humaniform body." enter image description here

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    $\begingroup$ It's not a humanoid face. The body is not humanoid and it does not have a face. This is all clearly stated in the Question! «The head resembles a motorcycle helmet» $\endgroup$ – JDługosz May 12 '17 at 10:05
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    $\begingroup$ «Instead…» does not answer the question. Generally, answers need to presume (by into) the premise set by the question. (reality-check is a noted exception.) $\endgroup$ – JDługosz May 12 '17 at 10:07
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Range

Why not have just one light indicating mood? That's how computers and servers work right now.

I can look at a machine and know all sorts of basic things from the lights, if a hard drive is online, if a hard drive is faulty, if a mb has an issue, if it's the front or the back, if the wifi is on or off, if the network cable is sending and recieving etc. So the colour of the lights tell me something, the speed it's blinking or not blinking tells me something etc.,

Seems much more logical to have one or 2 lights indicate this rather a pattern. The picture illustrates a range, it doesn't matter what the colour is so long as it's easy to see. Anything more is overkill and therefore bad engineering design.

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    $\begingroup$ That’s not the story. «’d like to include descriptions of the display as a unique “colorful” part of the story. …» You need to accept the premise of the question in order to answer. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz May 11 '17 at 11:14
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    $\begingroup$ Right now your answer is in the low-quality review queue. You might want to elaborate how your answer can be integrated into the story the OP is trying to write. Challenging the premise can be a good thing and it's very good to show different ways of handling things, but that normally applies to reality-check questions or is presented in the form of comments. $\endgroup$ – Secespitus May 11 '17 at 11:18
  • $\begingroup$ just trying to help the OP before he/she introduces bad engineering design into his/her story... feel free to review or downvote or whatever tickles your fancy. $\endgroup$ – Kilisi May 11 '17 at 13:32
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    $\begingroup$ @Kilisi Have a go at using one light indicating your mood. In the question, the AGI appears to have human-like emotions. Go on; put on a mask, pick up a torch or two and try. If you manage to do this, edit your answer to explain how - I know I'd find this difficult. $\endgroup$ – wizzwizz4 May 11 '17 at 19:20

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