Clemson alum creates morphing face technology to help depict real time emotions
Imagine leaving a review that accurately describes your true feelings without having to write a single word.
There’s an app for that.
And the foundation for it was imagined by Brian Sullivan, a 1990 Clemson University psychology graduate, a clinical psychologist and co-founder of Vizbii, Inc. in Charleston, South Carolina.
The patented invention is a collection of morphing cartoon faces called “morphiis” which are embedded within an analytics database platform called Morphii. The platform is offered as a toolkit that can be incorporated into mobile and web-based applications to capture and measure emotions and report insights based on the data.
“It’s like an emotional Intel chip inside a computer,” Sullivan said.
He got the idea for the morphing face after watching his patients struggle to fill out questionnaires describing how they felt using traditional scales and typical Q & A formats.
“I knew that an assistive technology for people with impairments to communicate their internal experiences was needed to help people more effectively describe pain intensity levels, depression and anxiety,” Sullivan said. “What I quickly found was that the traditional method especially when the answer format is a scale with some numbers on it, is too far removed from their actual experience. I could render scores from the questionnaires, but how much did those numbers mean?”
His personal experiences helped shape the way Morphii worked. He thought of his grandmother who had a stroke in 1981 that left her unable to speak, and he came up with the idea of adjustable facial expressions so anyone could morph the faces to express their emotions. His co-founder and now wife, Corley Sullivan, animated the idea before going on to develop several prototypes and a business plan.
He and Corley Sullivan founded the company and launched the platform in 2013. They later brought on a CEO and began to build the business while Sullivan continued as a private practitioner, counseling center staff member and adjunct professor at the College of Charleston. In 2016, he transitioned to full-time operations at Vizbii.
As Morphii began to take shape, Sullivan realized the product could be marketed to more than clinical settings, but businesses as well. Recently, they’ve worked on development projects with Verizon, JetBlue and Capital One. Some other clients include a preschool on Daniel Island, a physician in North Carolina who is integrating Morphii into an application to help other physicians recognize patients on a pathway to opioid addiction, and human resource assessments to determine employee engagement.
“Morphii is about helping people connect as well as capture and measure emotion, instead of sentiment data,” Sullivan said. “Businesses are right with collecting sentiment data, but it’s too limited to positive and negative reactions. Emotions are what really matter. Emotions can be positive and negative, but I don’t necessarily live that way. I live happy. I live sad. I live disgusted.”
In 2017, he did a TedX Talk in Charleston about Morphii and how emotions cross barriers such as languages and physical impairments.
“Sharing the Morphii story at TEDx Charleston was an extraordinary experience,” Sullivan said. “I met so many fascinating people, including one of the other speakers who has ties with Clemson as well.”
Morphii is a product of Sullivan’s winding road through career and education. He holds master’s and doctorate degrees in clinical psychology from the Florida Institute of Technology. After graduate school, he went to work at the College of Charleston, where he’s been for 23 years. Throughout his career there, he’s served as the associate director of the counseling center, an intern training coordinator and a professor.
He’s also served as the President of the South Carolina Psychological Association. He remains active in the organization as a Federal Advocacy Coordinator who communicates initiatives happening at the national level. For nearly two decades, he has participated in a psychology conference which includes lobbying Congress to help push the field forward.
The Rock Hill native said he has been able to accomplish all of this and has found his niche in the psychological field because of Clemson.
“Were it not for Clemson, were it not for my roommate, my professors, I might not have gotten turned on to psychology,” Sullivan said. “I know for certain I am truly happy and still genuinely passionate about practicing psychology. I learn so much from my patients. And I’m using not only my graduate training, but my undergraduate training as a psychologist.”
But Sullivan didn’t start his collegiate experience as a psychology major. He changed his major more than once. But once he saw how interesting his psychology roommate’s homework and readings were, Sullivan decided to switch his major from math to psychology.
“I switched majors and never looked back,” he said.