Startup of the Week / Beyond Verbal Takes Siri to the Shrink

Your computer doesn’t understand you. This Israeli startup may change that with its Emotions Analytics.

Siri, Apple’s intelligent personal assistant, understands our instructions very well. It knows what we want. How? Behind it is a program called Speech to Text that can understand words.

But Siri doesn’t get irony or sarcasm. Computers don’t get subtext either. In general, they’re pretty weak when it comes to comprehending emotions.

That may change, thanks to Beyond Verbal’s Emotions Analytics. Put simply, the Israeli startup has developed a way to analyze emotions from vocal intonations using three major categories: mood, attitude and personality.

“Behind Beyond Verbal are 18 years of research and four registered patents,” says the company’s CEO, Yuval Mor. “We can understand the speaker’s mood, his attitude toward the subject that he is speaking about, his degree of self-control, his level of cooperation, and also his character - whether he’s someone who makes things happen or someone who pursues power."

Some things are intuitive, Mor says. "If you talk to a baby from India, he’ll understand what you want. Emotions are indifferent to language - it’s not what you say, but how you say it. We don’t understand the words that are spoken, and we don’t try to. We’ve tried the system out on Westerners, Chinese, Ukrainians and people who speak tonal languages, with similar success rates of 75 to 85 percent.”

So far, the system has been tried out on roughly 60,000 people, speakers of 26 languages in all.

To understand the capabilities of vocal analysis, it bears visiting Beyond Verbal’s YouTube channel, which shows excerpts of famous video clips such as the debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney during the elections campaign (see the video), the interview with the late Princess Diana and a clip from the film “Dirty Harry.” All the clips include insights that Beyond Verbal’s system provides in real time.

Every 10 to 15 seconds, the system provides a new statement about the speaker. In Diana’s voice, the system identifies loneliness and frustration; in Obama’s, it identifies power, anger and pride.

Still skeptical? Beyond Verbal recently created Moodies, an application that lets users try a vocal analysis of their own. “It gives a taste of our capabilities, and we recommend trying it in parallel with a natural conversation and without looking at the computer,” suggests Mor.

“We announced the product last May,” Mor says. “Since then, there’s been an enormous amount of interest from applications developers to device manufacturers, marketing and advertising people and police and security agencies, because this really does change the rules of the game."

They figured the technology would be good for mobile application developers, Mor says. "But we decided not to limit ourselves to the boundaries of imagination. So now, we intend to release the technology as a cloud system that anyone can register for and buy the service package that’s right for them."

That should happen within months, he says. "Meanwhile, we’re starting with ten users who we think can do something interesting with the technology, provide an angle that we didn’t think of and get a product out to the market quickly. We really think this is a new dimension in communication between man and machine.”

The Israeli company Nice Systems does speech analysis. Its capabilities include showing customer-service hotlines when customers really mean to stop doing business with the company. But Mor says that the application used in call centers is only one of the system’s possible applications.

Beyond Verbal is actually a reincarnation of a startup called eXaudios, which was run by the physicist Yoram Levanon. The company folded and its assets were bought up by a group of investors, of whom Mor is one.

Levanon, who has stayed in the vocal-analysis field, became the new company’s chief scientist. “We have 12 employees, four of them scientists — people who understand physics, neuropsychology, performance analysis and statistics. We also have five subcontractors,” Mor says.

About a month ago, Beyond Verbal raised $1 million from startup investment funds such as Sami Sagol’s Winnovation. Other investors include Kenges Rakishev and the Genesis Angels fund. In all, Beyond Verbal has raised $3.8 million even before the revenue stage. Its board is chaired by Yuval Rabin, son of the former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Bloomberg