Sorted By Emotion
By Mike Masnick, Thu Feb 10 01:00:00 GMT 2005

Will you be more responsive to voicemail messages on your mobile phone if you know what emotional state the caller was in? That's the idea some researchers are working on, which might make you wonder what other criteria should people use to prioritize communications.

With many people now using mobile phones more as text devices than voice devices, some are even wondering what will happen to voicemail. When compared to email, instant messaging and text messaging, sometimes voicemail seems woefully out of date. However, some are clearly trying to change that by enhancing voicemail with things like video messages. There's a lot of skepticism around these ideas (which often seem more gimmicky than useful), but that hasn't stopped others from working on enhanced voicemail solutions.

One of the latest is some efforts underway at MIT to use "emotive alerts" to make voicemail more useful. The basic idea is that a computer will recognize the tone of voice of the caller, and can classify the calls by emotion -- so when you go to retrieve your calls, you can listen to the angry ones first (or, depending on your demeaner, the friendly ones first). The technology isn't really all that new. Corporate call centers have been experimenting with emotive recognition for years, with the idea being that angry callers should be passed on to "special" customer service reps as quickly as possible. This is just taking similar technology and moving it out to mobile phones. This also isn't the first effort to move emotions onto phones, as others have tried to add emotions to text messages as well.

It's not really all that clear how useful such a technology will be. After all, one of the reasons many people are no longer using voicemail (especially younger users) is that it's just easier to get the ideas across via text, and to have a record of that text. Also, it's not clear how useful "sorting" voicemails will be on a mobile phone. People tend to have their mobile phones with them most of the time, meaning it's not all that often that you get a backlog of voicemails on the phone, so prioritizing them directly may not matter so much. If anything, while this solution was specifically created for mobile phones, it almost sounds like it's more fitting for desktop VoIP phones. Most important, however, is the fact that once a call goes to voicemail it's too late. This might be useful as an indicator of the emotional state of the caller as the phone rings, so you know what to expect when you answer the phone, but somehow, it seems unlikely the technology is that good.

Either way, though, it does raise general issues about how people prioritize any kind of asynchronous messaging, whether its voice or text. Historically, we've been set up to things by time. The latest message in shows up at the top (or bottom) of your list and you go from there. In the email world, people start making use of filters, folders and labels to better organize messages, but are there better ways to prioritize text messages and voicemail messages as well? Setting up better methods for prioritizing all of the messages flowing into our lives is going to become increasingly important in general. While emotional sorting certainly sounds cool from a techie perspective, it seems unlikely to be all that useful for the average user.