July 28, 2021

Using Avatars to help people on the autistic spectrum with Adela Barbulescu

Using Avatars to help people on the autistic spectrum with Adela Barbulescu

In this episode of Innovators Can Laugh, I sat down with Adela Barbulescu, co-founder of Emoface. We discuss how to build the perfect work day, who'd she want on her team in an escape room, and the technology she is developing to help treat people with autism.

In this episode of Innovators Can Laugh, I sat down with Adela Barbulescu, co-founder of Emoface. We discuss how to build the perfect work day, who'd she want on her team in an escape room, and the technology she is developing to help treat people with autism.


Do you think Romanians express more or less emotions than the French?  Well my guest Adela Barbulescu, co-founder of Emoface, and I chat about that and how she's developing a tool to help people with autism in today's show. Let's jump right into the conversation.

 Adela, welcome to innovators. como


Okay. So last time we spoke, you took some time away from Paris to go work in Barcelona. How is that going? How Spain treating you? 

I'm trying to see how to build the perfect work day. Which involves, waking up to a nice cup of coffee, some nice, salted breakfast. And then the usual day in which we, I have unions and work and all this kind of stuff, and then go to the beach, do some snorkeling and go around.


okay. I was going to say you can't get the nice coffee and the nice city view in Paris, but what's missing is the snorkeling. I, there we go. That's what's mean. 

Yeah. Yeah,

Okay. So let's start off with doing an ICL round and it's basically a few light quirky questions that will help us get to know you better.

You ready? 


Okay. So first question, what was the worst job in your life? 

Oh, so because to see, because I didn't have many jobs, 


honestly I liked all the jobs that I had 

Lucky you. 

of something that was that they didn't like.

Okay. Did you have a bad professor? What was the worst teacher you ever had in your life? You don't have to say his or her name, but you could just say something that they did. 

I'm trying to think, that professor maybe maybe this involves people having a hard time, communicating what they want and changing their minds. Every other union. But it's something that happens in research quite a lot. So I had to learn to write down, maybe even record and say, okay, this is what we discussed.

This is what he plans to do. So let's stick to this.

Yeah, that was probably mostly in higher studies. Not necessarily like in high school or even undergrad. I'm imagining. 


Okay. Second question. What show or movie have you watched again? And again? 

Yeah. Okay. Get in again. Yeah the shows that I always go back to are s 

Yay. I'm a big SIFO fan.


Okay. I've seen a few of those. It's funny. yeah.

Yeah. Yeah. And I've only seen this twice, but I'm sure going to see many times b 

Okay. sci fi since load a scifi in there. Okay. I should check that out. I haven't seen that one yet. 

It's really good.


Third question. If you could only pick one person to join you and trying to get out of an escape room, who would that. 

Unsafe based on, okay. So I've been in many escape rooms because I like this a lot. And the one person that has always brought easy, nice insights has been my niece. 

Your niece, 

Yeah. So every time I played the first eight years old, 

eight year old to an escape room. 

definitely, and she's she's also short, so she sees all the stuff that's on the lower side that we mostly don't see.

And yeah she sees things very fast. So yeah, until now she's been the perfect candidate. Yep.

that makes a lot of sense because they're thinking of I've only done this like once or twice and you tend to overanalyze things. Whereas from a child perspective, they just see things as they are. And there are probably a lot of quick and yeah, they can grasp things more quickly.

Interesting. Good to know. I need to think about taking my nephews and nieces they're about that age. I never thought about that. Okay.

So let's rewind a little bit. Let's go back to your childhood. Where did you grow up and what was it like? Adela. 

I grew up in a small town called Latina in the south part of Romania, two hours away from bucharest And it was a very nice childhood, big house growing up with the grandparents also spent a lot of time with with animals. And trees in nature. So this was very cool.

Did you have any chores that your grandparents, that bunica or Nico gave to you when you were younger? 

I think one of the coolest part was growing up with traditions. and myths and stories, even if we knew, these were just stories. I grew really fond of them and, like random stuff, like I can, the fortuneteller from the coffee, this kind of stuff, they knew many things and they like to pass on this knowledge.

And even if we know it's real, it has a very specific. 

Interesting. For a second there. I thought the police were coming after you with all those sirens in the background. Maybe Barcelona is not as safe. And I says, Yeah.

imagine there. Okay.

So you had a great, really nice background. I also had this huckleberry Finn type background where it wasn't necessarily in the country, in the woods, but I used to shoot my BB gun and catch crawfish.

And it was a lot of fun being outdoors a lot. Now, what did you do in high school? Were you involved in a lot of activities or clubs? 

In our case, there wasn't much to do very small town. And I think also we, we didn't have much this education of doing activities. It was just try to have straight A's Then you'll be set up for life to utter nonsense. The one thing that I did, which also got me away from the town was joining in, on contests, on math and physics, like I went to the Olympia and stuff.

I spent time doing that, which is a bit extra curricular time. And then the rest of the time was just, listening to music. We were all into rock music. So there was the little group doing that kind of stuff.

Do you have any songs that you still have memorized from that era? From those rock groups? 

I had definitely. So everything from black Sabbath and led Zeppelin and Alica, this 

Okay. The heart stuff. Yeah. 

Okay. So  in 2006 now, correct me if I'm wrong, you went on to pursue a computer science degree and in poliTechnica and bucharest, is that right? 

Yeah. I think it was 2006. Yeah.

And then right after that you decided, Hey, I want to get my master's and that's what you did after that. 

Yeah. It really like to be in the students. I don't think I was ready to go and work and it wasn't, I never had a very big plan just thinking, okay, what can I do to continue learning? So I, it was always like all my life. I was very into visual arts and everything. That's visual. So I discovered computer vision, the field of how can you process images and videos to extract information using technology?

Yeah, I just wanted to do anything in that area. So I found a masters in Denmark that was into computer vision and cognitive systems.

Wow. So Copenhagen, you were there for a couple of years pursuing your master's degree. And what was the next big, important decision that you took? After that? 

So it was in fact in a small town in the north called the old work. And it took. have taken two years, but in the second year I realized I could be even more international, go on another year, somewhere away, or is it okay? Let's try that. And it just so happens that the teacher had had a nice position somewhere in Barcelona at the computer vision center.

It was winter. I was like, okay, definitely go there. And. Yeah, this was the next decision that took me once the closer to what I'm doing now, like going to pursue the second year of master in let's say a research assistant position.

Okay. And you did the research assistant position.

Yeah. Yeah. So it was this really nice research lab, in which yeah, like many teams, they were open pursuing different interests, such as, or an automatic. Document transcription and LP. And I was working on 3d pose estimation from videos, like videos with people from which you would extract information on their skeleton, like where their limbs are in the 3d coordinates.

Interesting. Now was the program in Spanish or in English? Did you have a tough time of tough time with the language or did you know Spanish? 

As you may have met maybe more people from Romania that seemed to somehow know Spanish from their upbringing on telenovelas.

My wife is one of those people. Yeah.  


That a teacher named Talia taught her 

yes. She, I don't know. She realizes what she was a very good teacher and yeah, just, like my grandma would listen, you would watch this. I would do my homework nearby and just stuck. So when I got here in Spain, I could speak Spanish, but it wasn't really necessary. I didn't do classes or anything and everybody spoke English.

Okay. So.

As you're working as a research assistant your next move I think, was going to pursue your PhD and was that. 

Yeah. Yeah. So as I was working there and realized. Liked the environment. And I really liked the idea of, like fundamental research. We're not looking for a purpose per se. We don't have a clear objective. We just wanna know what's out there to learn and to extract information from. was like, okay.

Yeah, I really liked the academic environment. I love the people that work in these fields and yeah, and just wanted to find some PhD program that would. Seem interesting. And I found this one in France that was initially based on virtual cinematography on the idea of creating virtual actors.

That's all I knew about it. The title for the cookies, cinematography virtual. I carried the, over the summer, I carried all the interviews, everything, and I got accepted.  Throughout the three years of PhD, the subject kind of twisted according to what's what we were doing. And basically in the end, what I did was creating, statistical models for how people express emotions.

Okay. Let's see. Making beautiful actors, that are based on like a database that we recorded. Real actors that we ask them to express a different emotions with a predefined set of sentences. And we would capture using like mocap systems would capture the facial expressions, had motion, eye gaze, and then also the voice.

And by analyzing all this audio visual information, we would be able to. We use neural networks and really extract information that is particular to a certain emotion and then be able to transfer these to a 3d avatar and make it express that emotion for a new phrase.

Interesting. Okay. So out of curiosity, how many facial expressions or emotions can the human do? I wonder if some people maybe limit themselves and just do a few dozen and other people maybe have hundreds what have you seen in your. 

Yeah. This is a very interesting subject. We know that this depends immensely on the culture, also on the environment that we are exposed to. How language also shapes a lot, what we know about the world and, the thing like in what was it in the last Khadra I know how many hundreds of words for snow.

It goes a bit the same for four emotions. There are cultures in which you have much more wordsfor certain emotions, and that also influences how people can feel them. So if you know something exists you will have a better appreciation, like a better filtering for the subtlety of that emotion.

And like the. The database, the biggest database that I found about emotions is in English. It was made in Cambridge and it contains 412, labels for emotions.

Okay. I have a feeling. That Romanians probably have more emotional expressions than maybe the French, but I could be wrong. Okay. You've lived in Paris. You've lived in Spain. You lived in Romania. What are your thoughts on that? Which culture has the more emotions.

Oh, more emotions.

but I'm just like wondering in your experience, who does the more 



This theme with me is also that, after a certain age, You tend to not see certain things. So I was clearly, I'm very well knowledged with what Romanians express, so I can see these things much, much clearer than in other countries. And yeah, clearly I think that Romanians express many things, there are so many things they can do their faces and especially in terms of like confusion and.

I don't know if you've noticed this is like me.

Yeah. There's the there's exactly that. Yeah. There's also like the Romanian shrug. I call it the romaine, the Romanian shrug and yeah. Yeah. There's a lot of different expressions I noticed here that my in-laws do or friends I've met. Yeah.

It's fast. 

And I think it's also, it depends a lot on how. Politeness and directness is shown. Like for instance, I know that in Romania, the way your image and hope is in yourself is very important. So I think sometimes people tend to hide and be very careful in the way that they express certain things. So that leaves maybe room for much more creativity in terms of what you can express while in other places like in Denmark, people are very direct.

And it's all out there. there is no, the body doesn't show signs of something that it wouldn't be, of what is not said, but what is felt, I don't 

It sounds. So it sounds like the culture is so different than Spain or even, maybe even France and Denmark. Yeah. 

Yeah. Yeah, definitely.

So as you're doing this and what happened, that, that sparked the idea. Emma face and what we'll get it MFAs in just a second. But was it during this time or did it come later that you thought, Hey, there's a potential opportunity for using these tools and this technology to help treat autism.

When did that come? 

I think it came in two steps first. It was precisely, as I mentioned this emotional database with 412 emotions, this was used. So it contained many videos and it was made by the, by a psychologist to train people with autism. To recognize emotions. So that was when I first understood that there was a name, a very strong link between emotions and autistic people.

And they started reading a lot about it was I found it very interesting. And then it was towards the end of my studies that I was okay, what can I go on? I keep being a student, what can I do to learn more to whatever? And,  I realized that I wanted to do something. Concrete, and to really make an application of what I had been developing until then.

And that's when I I discussed within local incubators, like a network of incubators in France that help researchers Valerie. The technology that they create in labs in order to use them in a company that they will find found. So I discussed with one of these incubators I explained that I have an idea for using this tech for a treatment in autism, and eventually the project got accepted in 2017.

So I've been working on it since then.

And how many, organizations have you worked with that can help experiment and test the application? 

On the very beginning, I was contacting a lot of know like independent health professionals, like psychologists and speech therapists. And then a lot of structures. Like there are many in France, these are like either associations or what they call social medical structures where kids can go receive education and, treatment.

So it started by doing kind of a market study, like just discussing with them, showing them the prototypes that I had. And until now I think I've done demos and observations in more than 200 structures. And eventually now we're going towards meeting bigger associations, like national level, so that we have a bigger impact.

All right. Okay. And I understand there's also a co-founder somebody you met her name's Myra she's a Brazilian background is UX design. Did you meet her when you were working as a research assistant or when did you develop that relation? 

I met her just at the beginning of When the demo phase got accepted to this incubator, I was precisely looking for associations in granola where they work with kids without Orrin autism. And she was there working as, she was playing with the kids or now Beneful. How do you call this in English?

Like she was doing a voluntary. 

fallen. Yeah. Volunteer. 

Yeah. So the, yeah, the director of the association put us in contact. She realized that we can do stuff together.

Great. So the application what you've done is  gamified it, you've made it like an educational video game, it has these interactive avatars. Is it just primarily through the mobile app or is it also.

We're developing in unity. So that loss for cross-platform, we decided to start with tablets because kids work very well with tablets. They can learn very fast from them. But then, yeah, we'll also launch a version for PC because there are many professionals that prefer the PC.

When it comes to treatment for autism, what are some of the bad recommendations that you typically hear in this area? Adela. 

There is clearly history in France, that has Taken a huge toll on the the advance. Yeah, the advancement on the clinical take on autism and specifically it's a psychoanalytical. Of the origins of autism. So basically I think in the eighties, there was a psycho psychoanalysis researcher who said that it is the fault of mothers that kids get autism.

Because I know that they were too cold or they didn't show enough affection when they were babies and that made them have the behaviors that they have. So this influenced a lot the kind of therapies and how autism was viewed for. Quite a long time. And are still universities where teachers do this kind of, they teach it this.

So the, yeah, there are many associations that try to fight against it and try to spread the correct information.

Okay. Now when it comes to what your platform provides, like what is the one key takeaway that you want to make sure that the audience gets from MFA? 

I think it's important for people to understand the role of learning emotion. It's not that intuitive for everybody, to understand the role between basically A behavior. When you see a kid who comes extremely angry and he has a crisis, all of a sudden, maybe it burns not understand what happened.

And usually the origin of this is a frustration that is based on the fact that they cannot communicate how they feel. It's, it's this thing that's a bit troubled and this is where they have many difficulties. How can I express what I want? How can I express the emotion? And then a second point would be understanding that when you try to help the kids, you have to keep in mind that they have perceptual system.

That's a bit different that they have hyper sensibilities  for instance. And that means that they need systems that are adapted for them and playing with visual contests. So visual content. Games. These are very efficient, even if it's a bit counter-intuitive, some people think these are just gadgets, but yeah, using the games and fun visual stuff works great for learning.

Okay. And the tool, is it only available in France right now, or is it also available in another. 

It's available all over the world at the moment in three languages within French English and Roman.

Wonderful. Another question for you real quick, if you were to go back five years from now is what you're doing now, how you imagine your life. 

 No, not at all. I would 

Where did you think you'd be doing it though. 

Maybe continuing on research in some country.

Okay. All right, Adele. Thanks so much for being on innovators. For everyone listening until next week, this is Eric melchor saying goodbye  of war and adios. 

thanks so much. Goodbye.