‘I’m a Human Behavior Expert, and Here’s What I Think About Amazon Halo’s Attempt To Read Your Emotions’

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On Thursday, Amazon announced its buy-in to the $1.64 billion wearable industry with Amazon Halo, a screen-free smart device that, among other features, measures the changes in your tone throughout the day to record how your emotional state ebbs and flows. "Throughout the day, it will take short samples of your speech and analyze the acoustic characteristics that represent how you sound to the people you interact with," says a post on the Amazon blog announcing the device. But is our emotional state actually reflected in our tone of voice?

Right now, the Amazon Halo and the intonation-reading feature aptly called Tone, is only available to invited users. (When it does launch, the device will cost $100 with an extra cost of $4 per month to access the features.) Once you enable Tone on the device, you'll set up a personal voice profile within the Amazon Halo app by reading a few quotes to your device. Not only can you check on your emotions whenever you want via the app, but you can also record certain conversations intentionally in order to gain a deeper understanding of the exchange. Human behavior expert Patti Wood says that could offer a lot of new information about yourself.

Experts In This Article

Research indicates that all seven basic human emotions—that's anger, fear, disgust, happiness, sadness, surprise, and contempt—appear in our vocal communication, says Wood. "In fact, research shows that people more accurately interpret someone's emotion from just their voice than they were from listening to and observing or just observing them." Those who you're speaking to will pick up emotions more quickly through your tone than they would your actual words or facial expression (meaning, you can't hide your shade behind a face mask after all).

"Research shows that people more accurately interpret someone's emotion from just their voice than they were from listening to and observing or just observing them." —Patti Wood, human behavior expert

The study of what's happening beneath the surface of a sentence is called "paralanguage," and it considers everything from breath to tone to tempo to volume level to discern the emotions behind someone's words. If you want to see it in action, Wood has a couple of exercises you can try. "One test you can do that is to cry or giggle to a baby or a dog and see how they respond," she says. "Or note how when someone you love calls you, you can know that something is wrong in their lives just from the way they greet you on the call."

So much of paralanguage happens automatically that we may not even notice it. For example, Wood points to Joey on Friends and his catchphrase: “How you doin’?” "By vocally emphasizing the 'you', that makes the listener feel that he is speaking directly to them in suggestive, sexual way," she says. And, according to research, you register that tone long before you recognize the change in his facial features.

Wood says that devices like Amazon Halo's Tone feature that register your emotions through your voice could prove useful to regularly check in with yourself as the day wears on. "I think it could help people who struggle with depression and other issues self-monitor their emotional state so they can give themselves more self-care," says Wood. "Right now many people are dealing with more stress, anxiety, and depression so it would help them note how they feel before it becomes more debilitating and for more serious issues." More simply, it can also just help you pin down when you're happy or sad or angry so you can take steps to best act on those particular emotions.

"There are many ways that you can use Tone, but I will share an example of my own," writes Maulik Majmudar, MD, cardiologist and principal medical officer for Amazon Halo. "I have been working from home with three kids under the age of four, so I use Tone to gut check that I am not taking any stress out on my family or friends. I check my Tone results so that I can be more intentional about how I communicate in these strange times—and have noticed it takes a burden off my wife, as she doesn’t have to be the one to tell me I am overly stressed."

Of course, the question on many people's minds is whether or not Amazon will be recording conversations when it's listening for tone of voice. (It's a genuine concern: Last year, it was reported that Amazon's employees often listen to recordings from owners of Amazon Alexa.) Dr. Majmudar addresses this privacy issue in the same blog post. "Tone speech samples are never sent to the cloud, which means nobody ever hears them, and you have full control of your voice data—including the ability to delete Tone results, and your entire voice profile, from the app," he says.

Time (and users) will tell how effective this device becomes in revolutionizing the intersection of tech and interpersonal conversations. But in a year so fraught with emotion, it does feel like learning more about how your voice holds your emotions might be useful—with or without the help of Amazon Halo.

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