The Marginalian
The Marginalian

The Human Face, Up Close and Personal

The face, with its intricate lace of 33 different muscles, is a powerful gateway to human emotion and thus the subject of relentless research aiming to pin down how and why we express our inner selves on that living canvas. Here are 3 fascinating projects that probe what lies beneath.


NYU Media Research Lab professor Ken Perlin has the ambitious goal of isolating the minimal number of facial expression elements that capture our character and personality.

His project, Responsive Face, is a 3D animation demo that lets you play with various facial elements — brows, gaze, head tilt, mouth and more — to see how they change as they capture emotions like fear, anger, surprise, disappointment and happiness.

The eventual goal of this research is to give computer/human interfaces the ability to represent the subtleties we take for granted in face to face communication, so that they can function as agents for an emotional point of view.

The demo is based on the iconic Facial Action Coding System (FACS) developed by psychologist Paul Ekman, who pioneered the study of emotions through the taxonomy of all conceivable facial expressions and whose work is now being used by anyone from lawyers to actors to the CIA. (Ekman also collaborated with the BBC on the excellent series The Human Face, which we couldn’t recommend enough.)

Perlin’s work is also being implemented in helping children with Autism, teaching kids not only how to “read” other people’s expressions, but also how to manipulate their own faces to communicate their emotions.


If you’ve ever made a few beer bucks in college participating in paid psych experiments, you know those can be long, tedious, and possibly involving being stuck in a a big, noisy fMRI machine for an hour.

Enter Face Research, an online portal for psychology experiments about people’s preferences for faces and voices, where you can help the advance of science from the comfort of your own living room. The project invites users to take a series of personality questionnaires and participate in various experiments in exchange for a look at the findings once data is collected. Granted, that won’t pay for beer, but it does indulge the psych geeks among us.

Previous studies have investigated fascinating topics like the relationship between averageness and attractiveness, women’s preference for masculinity in men’s faces, and various other aspects of why we like what we like.

The project is a joint venture between the University of Aberdeen School of Psychology Face Research Lab and The Perception Lab at the University of St Andrews. Sign up and help coin the cultural definition of attractiveness.


That’s My Face lives in that awkward limbo between the scientific and the bizarre, with one foot firmly planted in the questionable. Simply put, it’s a tool that lets you upload photos of yourself and explore your face in 3D as you manipulate age, race, gender and other attributes.

So far so good. But then comes the questionable — the site offers various souvenirs of narcissism, such as your own action figure, framed 3D portrait, and custom 3D crystal. There’s even an affiliate program, where the more, um, entrepreneurial can make a few bucks off of other people’s self-worship.

That’s My Face was founded by a grad student from University of Cambridge’s Computer Laboratory. We think it’s an interesting metaphor for the value of a PhD in today’s cultural environment — make what you will of that statement.

Published July 1, 2009




Filed Under

View Full Site

The Marginalian participates in the and affiliate programs, designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to books. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book from a link here, I receive a small percentage of its price, which goes straight back into my own colossal biblioexpenses. Privacy policy. (TLDR: You're safe — there are no nefarious "third parties" lurking on my watch or shedding crumbs of the "cookies" the rest of the internet uses.)