News Release

How human faces can teach androids to smile

Research out of Osaka University examines the mechanical properties of human facial expressions to understand how androids can more effectively convey and recognize emotions

Peer-Reviewed Publication

Osaka University

Fig. 1


Visualized distributions of the strain (left) and displacement (right) in the facial action for raising the mouth corner

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Credit: Hisashi ISHIHARA

Osaka, Japan – Robots able to display human emotion have long been a mainstay of science fiction stories. Now, Japanese researchers have been studying the mechanical details of real human facial expressions to bring those stories closer to reality.

In a recent study published by the Mechanical Engineering Journal, a multi-institutional research team led by Osaka University have begun mapping out the intricacies of human facial movements. The researchers used 125 tracking markers attached to a person’s face to closely examine 44 different, singular facial actions, such as blinking or raising the corner of the mouth.

Every facial expression comes with a variety of local deformation as muscles stretch and compress the skin. Even the simplest motions can be surprisingly complex. Our faces contain a collection of different tissues below the skin, from muscle fibers to fatty adipose, all working in concert to convey how we’re feeling. This includes everything from a big smile to a slight raise of the corner of the mouth. This level of detail is what makes facial expressions so subtle and nuanced, in turn making them challenging to replicate artificially. Until now, this has relied on much simpler measurements, of the overall face shape and motion of points chosen on skin before and after movements.

“Our faces are so familiar to us that we don’t notice the fine details,” explains Hisashi Ishihara, main author of the study. “But from an engineering perspective, they are amazing information display devices. By looking at people's facial expressions, we can tell when a smile is hiding sadness, or whether someone’s feeling tired or nervous.”

Information gathered by this study can help researchers working with artificial faces, both created digitally on screens and, ultimately, the physical faces of android robots. Precise measurements of human faces, to understand all the tensions and compressions in facial structure, will allow these artificial expressions to appear both more accurate and natural.

“The facial structure beneath our skin is complex,” says Akihiro Nakatani, senior author. “The deformation analysis in this study could explain how sophisticated expressions, which comprise both stretched and compressed skin, can result from deceivingly simple facial actions.”

This work has applications beyond robotics as well, for example, improved facial recognition or medical diagnoses, the latter of which currently relies on doctor intuition to notice abnormalities in facial movement.

So far, this study has only examined the face of one person, but the researchers hope to use their work as a jumping off point to gain a fuller understanding of human facial motions. As well as helping robots to both recognize and convey emotion, this research could also help to improve facial movements in computer graphics, like those used in movies and video games, helping to avoid the dreaded ‘uncanny valley’ effect.



The article, "Visualization and analysis of skin strain distribution in various human facial actions," has been published in the Mechanical Engineering Journal at DOI:


About Osaka University

Osaka University was founded in 1931 as one of the seven imperial universities of Japan and is now one of Japan's leading comprehensive universities with a broad disciplinary spectrum. This strength is coupled with a singular drive for innovation that extends throughout the scientific process, from fundamental research to the creation of applied technology with positive economic impacts. Its commitment to innovation has been recognized in Japan and around the world, being named Japan's most innovative university in 2015 (Reuters 2015 Top 100) and one of the most innovative institutions in the world in 2017 (Innovative Universities and the Nature Index Innovation 2017). Now, Osaka University is leveraging its role as a Designated National University Corporation selected by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology to contribute to innovation for human welfare, sustainable development of society, and social transformation.


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