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The High-Tech Future of Body Language


Carol Kinsey Goman is an executive coach, author and keynote speaker who addresses association, government, and business audiences around the world. Her latest book and program topic is The Nonverbal Advantage: Secrets and Science of Body Language at Work.

If you're a leader who thinks that technology offers a screen to hide behind, think again. The visual technology revolution is making body language more important than ever. Soon you will be interacting face-to-face with even greater frequency, even if those interactions are mediated by a screen. Leaders will need to master these new technologies to communicate effectively with their followers, employees, customers and clients.

Here are five new advances in technology and research that show how non-verbal cues will remain as significant -- if not more significant -- in our digital future.

1) Telepresence is going mainstream.

In June this year, two major hotel groups, Starwood Hotels and Resorts and Marriott International, announced the addition of public telepresence suites in key cities worldwide. Telepresence is the video-conferencing technology that allows people in different locations to meet almost as though they are face-to-face, with high-definition video and directional audio.

Because you are displayed full-size, other participants can see your facial expressions, gaze direction, and physical gestures. The advantages are obvious: stronger bonds and improved rapport between geographically dispersed colleagues and team members. But video conferencing can also heighten anxiety and self-consciousness, because now body language is exposed.

Need some tips on how to communicate effectively during video meetings? Check out Cisco's 2009 white-paper, "Successful Video Communication."

2) Avatars are learning body language.

Have you heard about "Project LifeLike?" It's a collaboration between the Intelligent Systems Laboratory (ISL) at the University of Central Florida (UCF) and the Electronic Visualization Laboratory (EVL) at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) that aims to create avatars that are as lifelike as possible.

Beyond developing characters that actually look like the real person (instead of some cartoon-like representation), researchers are also finding ways to incorporate body-language cues in the interchanges. With sensors connected to real-life individuals, researchers find and replicate facial expressions, eye tracking and gestures in order to give avatars the ability to express human emotional signals, read those nuances in other avatars (i.e. people) and adjust their communication accordingly.

See how this technology works -- and how it's been used to "digitally preserve" a National Science Foundation administrator -- in this demonstration video.

3) MIT's "sociometer" predicts the outcome of face-to-face interactions.

Whether you're in a job interview or trying to negotiate a deal, the results of face-to-face interactions are strongly influenced not only by what you choose to say, but also by unconscious factors such as the way your body postures match the other person's, the level of physical activity between you, and the degree to which one of you sets the tone -- literally -- of the conversation.

Research by the MIT Media Lab shows how these subtle cues provide powerful signals about what's really going on and can even predict the outcome of an interaction. This research was based on data from devices (called 'sociometers') that monitor and analyze patterns of unconscious social signals that pass between people. Using just this data, with no knowledge of a conversation's content, researchers can predict the outcome of an interchange with 80% accuracy.

Dr. Alex "Sandy" Pentland's 2008 book, Honest Signals: How They Shape Our World, explains how the sociometer came to be and what it might mean for you.

4) Robots demonstrate the power of eye contact.

Eye contact is powerful because it is instinctive and connected with humans' early survival patterns. Now even robots are showing that eye contact makes a difference.

Scientists from Carnegie Mellon University in collaboration with researchers from Japan's Osaka University and ATR Intelligent Robotics and Communication Laboratory found that a robot's eye movement is key to guiding the flow of a conversation with more than one person. The robot (called Robovie) used for the experiments was given the ability to combine gaze with speech.

With Robovie playing the part of a travel agent, it was able to guide the flow of a conversation effectively. When the robot looked equally at two people, they took turns speaking. Those at whom Robovie only glanced spoke less, and those who were ignored completely spoke the least. This pattern was consistent about 97 percent of the time. If robots can use their glances to either draw people into or exile them from a conversation, then you can too.

5) There's PASION in the European Union

When you communicate face to face, you use non-verbal and contextual information to enhance your interactions. Video conferencing, emailing and other technologies can strip away this information. The goal of the PASION (Psychologically Augmented Social Interaction Over Networks) project is to facilitate the functioning of online groups by restoring and even enhancing this information as users interact digitally.

The PASION technologies let users "augment" their phones calls, emails and texting with information about where the other people are, how they feel and how the group as a whole is interacting. For example, is your colleague's skin hot and flushed, and therefore sending the signal that he's flustered, angry or in a rush? PASION technology provides data on emotional states -- showing that technology, like our own bodies, may soon be able to communicate our subconscious states. See what this future looks like in this short demo video.

With all these visual interactions in our future, the question is: Are you ready for your close up?

Previously on the Leadership Playlist, Carol wrote about Body Language: Mastering the Silent Language of Leadership.

By Carol Kinsey Goman  |  October 22, 2009; 1:52 PM ET  | Category:  Communication skills Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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I agree with JANEBEARDIVL.
Hideous use of technology.

Posted by: shadwell1 | October 22, 2009 1:12 PM

This emphasis on body language is a giant step away from authentic communication, and toward the world of spin. It doesn't make you a better leader or speaker -- it makes you less present to your audience and your self. It urges people to focus on externals, instead of actual content. When your attention is on your self, you are more nervous -- guaranteed. That feeds the nervous system more unhelpful signals, which manifest in "the wrong" body language..and things spiral down from there. It also teaches people to look for what's "really" being said,what the "real" agenda is, instead of what is actually happening. When speakers focus on body language as much as is urged here, they skip focusing on what truly matters: content, and presence. It's like spending all your time on a pretty book report and skimming the book itself. There are better ways to be authentically confident...focusing on "body language" is the worst way.

Posted by: JaneBeardIVL | October 22, 2009 12:07 PM

For example, is your colleague's skin hot and flushed, and therefore sending the signal that he's flustered, angry or in a rush? PASION technology provides data on emotional states -- showing that technology, like our own bodies, may soon be able to communicate our subconscious states

That totally creeps me out. We've already given away too much of our privacy.

Posted by: itsagreatday1 | October 22, 2009 9:44 AM

I think that PASION is terribly invasive. Heart rate??? Body temp?

When I communicate with someone, yes, there is body language. But in a sense, it's one dimensional. I have a degree of privacy. If I'm talking to my boss and don't much like him/her but have to go along to get along, and I'm cognizant of body language, I can mask my own. With PASION, a rising heart rate might indicate I'd like to choke him/her :-)

But a far greater problem with this technology is that everyone would fancy they are able to accurately assess an increase in heart rate or change in body temp, etc. There is too much room here for error and misinterpretation. And much too invasive.

IMHO, this sort of technology could be dangerous.

Posted by: itsagreatday1 | October 22, 2009 9:41 AM

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