Our Kinects are watching us. But not in the way you think.

By all accounts the Kinect is a pretty fascinating doohickey. Like all new and innovative gadgets, it has received its fair share of paranoid critiques about how it may soon be able to read your mind or control your house. While a lot of these are most likely improbable incarnations of science fiction nightmare fantasies, the Kinect (or similar, even more simplistic facial- and motion-recognition technology) actually has been used for research with potentially significant privacy concerns, Slate reports:

People choose to post personal information on Facebook and Google. Game platforms like the Kinect, by contrast, continuously observe your nonverbal behavior. Movements and gestures may seem harmless to share with others, but decades of psychological research demonstrate that the way you move is more revealing than what you say.

More than 40 years ago, UCLA professor Albert Mehrabian demonstrated that nonverbal behavior constitutes a majority of face-to-face communication. More importantly, nonverbal behavior is automatic. Though we can all watch what we say, very few of us can consistently regulate our subtle movements and gestures.

Though it’s designed for gaming, the Kinect can be modified to track other behaviors as well. As such, scientists throughout the world, including my team at Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, are starting to study what the Kinect and other gaming systems reveal about you. I’ve been studying digital footprints—the behavioral residues left behind in video games and other virtual worlds—for almost 10 years. During that time I have collaborated with Fortune 500 executives, military officials, and educators. Our ability to automatically classify someone’s nonverbal cues—the essence of their identity, psychological state, and behavior—could prove extremely beneficial. It’s also not to be taken lightly.

The author lists a number of forms of behavioral monitoring the Kinect has already been used for, ranging from tracking classroom behavior and screening for ADHD to constructing a model of drivers’ behavior to better understand road rage and car accidents. With such precise and intimate forms of screening, concerns of personal freedom and privacy loom large: “while tracking nonverbal behavior may help prevent accidents, it could also clue in employers about personal habits that workers might not want to share.” 

The larger point here that fans of videogames may not want to readily admit is that the virtual worlds in which they have invested so much may have started to abandon its own fiction. Like any other form of social media or digital presence, a life in games is a fundamentally public life, for “as technology becomes more immersive, your video-game persona is not just a character. It’s you.”

-Yannick LeJacq

[via Slate]