Maura Mengoni of EMOJ tells us about the role of emotions in the design of products, systems, and living spaces.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Maura Mengoni: We’re fine. Fortunately, we have not all been affected by Covid, and even our friends have almost all come out unscathed. We have overcome the initial shock and resumed our daily activities but with the necessary precautions to guarantee our health and that of the people we associate with.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded EMOJ.
Maura Mengoni: I am a co-founder of the EMOJ startup and associate professor at the Faculty of Engineering of the Polytechnic University of Marche (www.univpm.it), today among the top 5 Italian universities according to CENSIS. For years I have been coordinating a scientific research group that deals with exploring new methods for the design of products that improve the User Experience and develops applications based on Virtual and Augmented Reality technologies to create interactive and sensory experiences in various fields ranging from industry, automotive up to the enhancement of cultural heritage.
The role of emotions in the design of products, systems, and living spaces has always been central to my research, but it has become even more so thanks to the meeting with an entrepreneur I call a “visionary,” Luca Giraldi: a union, which even today allows us to innovate the solutions offered by EMOJ.
In fact, in 2015, I met Luca Giraldi, who spoke to me for the first time about Customer Experience and how the knowledge of emotions was essential to create an effective and lasting connection with the customer, the key to success for companies. Luca Giraldi already had numerous experiences in the field of Customer Marketing, having worked for years for large companies in the field of Retail and Fashion, and above all the first in the Marche Region to have founded an innovative startup with a product, Wisocial, capable of transforming wi-fi networks in a marketing automation tool.
From this fortuitous meeting, the first embryo of EMOJ was born, which, however, saw its foundation only after two years of intense research activity by a multidisciplinary team, with skills ranging from design to information technology and marketing and from the arrival of Andrea Generosi, expert developer, the backbone of the company. In those two years, we have studied how to objectively and non-invasively measure the emotional response of customers in physical spaces, typically shops, and then activate reactions, such as changes in lights and sounds or images in the LED walls, which create a relationship, empathetic and exclusive with them.
In 2018, in Las Vegas, we launched our first product, AI Toolkit, a plug & play solution based on the use of 4k cameras and mini processors, which detects age, gender, and emotions from the facial expressions of the people recorded, and connects with networks IoT (Internet of Things) to control devices such as displays, LED lamps so as to adapt the space to the recognized emotional states. With the Evoque Tunnel at the Retail Forum 2018, we have become protagonists of innovation for the Fashion Retail; and then from there, we started developing a line of products for the Digital world, from monitoring and Conversion Rate Optimization of websites and e-commerce to mobile applications.
Today our technology is at the forefront in the field of Artificial Intelligence for the coding of human feelings and behaviors, scalable, adaptable to many contexts, and protected by an international patent.
How does EMOJ innovate?
Maura Mengoni: EMOJ today is an innovative startup that boasts over 12 professionals, including digital strategists and developers experts in artificial intelligence. It aims to revolutionize the world of Customer Experience thanks to its Emotional Analytics and Intelligence technology, which is not only able to recognize how satisfied or interested the customer is in a particular purchase proposal but also understands in detail its complex status, emotional and behavioral, and activates in real-time the reactions of the physical space or digital contents that adapt to it, so as to increase its state of well-being. Our technology is fully compliant with the GDPR, ensuring that every image and video is anonymized and treated in full respect of privacy.
EMOJ innovates through the development of algorithms based on Artificial Intelligence, which continuously learn from what they detect and recognize, and with an Agile approach to software development, which allows us to adapt our solutions to customer needs, to continuous changes, to increase our efficiency in a very short time. The Deep Learning algorithms that allow facial recognition and those that govern possible reactions are protected by an Italian patent, owned by EMOJ, and extended internationally.
EMOJ has received numerous national and international awards for the innovativeness of the solutions, first among the 50 Official Italian startups that represented Italy at the Consumer Electronic Show 2020, winner of the SMAU innovation awards in the 2018 and 2019 editions, awarded by Unicredit StartLab and Bocconi among the top 10 Italian startups in 2018 and winner of the IOT Award in 2017.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Maura Mengoni: The Covid-19 pandemic has not stopped our development activities because we have been working in smart work mode since our foundation, having to collaborate with professionals on a national scale. Apart from the first moment of confusion, linked more to the emotional aspects of the people who are part of the EMOJ team, we immediately refocused our work, respecting deliveries and looking to the future. Surely we have felt and feel the crisis because some customers with whom we were starting projects have preferred to postpone development to a time of greater understanding of the effects of the pandemic, and others are postponing payments. Despite this, we have not given up; we asked for and obtained aid from the Italian State so as not to lose any of our workgroups. Furthermore, the issues related to Covid-19 gave us the opportunity to found an E-learning Academy, where we have already developed a challenging project for a platform for distance learning www.corsincloud.it
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Maura Mengoni: The crisis linked to Covid-19 has confronted us with the fact that our technology, used so far to create unique digital experiences and develop more interactive and empathic products, is potentially expendable by our customers, who have been oriented towards more aspects, leaders of their business.
We, therefore, tried to intercept the needs of the market to which we would have been able to respond proactively:
Remote training (Distance Learning System) of company personnel on key issues for 1) guaranteeing the health and safety of workers (e.g., promotion and use of PPE, methods to guarantee factory operations while maintaining distance, ergonomics, automation technologies industrial, etc.) and 2) make smart working effective (e.g., “agile” development of projects, cloud infrastructures, and cybersecurity, methodologies for planning and managing smart working with strategies for reducing staff stress and increasing productivity, new organizational models);
Lack of truly interactive e-learning platforms capable of verifying that the students have actually followed the courses and learned the concepts transmitted. Furthermore, most platforms do not allow company management to be updated in real-time on the learning progress of their staff and on the progress of mandatory training in compliance with the law.
We have therefore developed an innovative distance learning platform (www.corsincloud.it), active since September 2020, for professional firms, small and medium-sized companies, freelancers to provide training courses on health and safety at work and the development of smart working products and services. The platform is equipped with absolutely innovative features compared to the current national and international state of the art because it is able to monitor in real-time the actual presence of the students (face recognition), their level of attention (gaze detection), the degree of frustration they feel (emotion recognition) and at the same time sending interactive and empathic digital contents that allow them to overcome the “passive self-learning” model created by most of the Distance Learning System tools.
The platform is equipped with a web dashboard that allows managers to demonstrate to the bodies in charge the courses they have taken, the actual hours followed but also the learning level of their staff.
Thanks to the new platform, EMOJ wants to contribute to introducing emotions into increasingly “digital” human relationships and raise awareness among companies towards safety and health issues and smart working and Proctoring systems.
What specific tools, software, and management skills are you using to navigate this crisis?
Maura Mengoni: Thanks to the new Corsincloud and Proctoring projects, we are managing phase 3 with great enthusiasm. We have many prospects for the future; we too want to contribute with our technology to improve the lives of people who are forced to work and live differently. We want to exploit digital technology to sensitize companies to smart work and to create emotional human-computer relationships and spaces for emotional and affective social interaction. We are also participating in national and international challenges in order to continue to promote our technology and differentiate ourselves more and more from our competitors.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Maura Mengoni: Our competitors are international companies, such as the American Affectiva, a spinoff of MIT in Boston, and Luxand, or the Dutch Sightcorp and the Swiss NVISO, all medium-large companies that offer their customers respectively software development kits to integrate the Face Coding in their applications, SAAS (Software As A Service) solutions that analyze images and videos with cloud services, or consultancy for customer profiling. In Italy, we are the only company that has proprietary technology and an omnichannel solution, i.e., applicable to digital and physical scenarios. We overcome the competition because we use data to activate unique experiences that adapt to the emotional state of people, because our algorithms continuously learn, and above all, because we are a dynamic, agile company that adapts to change, offering solutions capable of responding to the needs of our customers.
Your final thoughts?
Maura Mengoni: Emergency, like any crisis, is an opportunity for change, growth, and improvement. Refocuses attention on primary and social impact aspects. Man today has returned to the center, and maintaining human relationships today is essential for well-being. Digital and technology have given us and will give us the possibility not to give up on them. EMOJ wants to be a pioneer of digital transformation and new technological humanism.
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