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Emotion Tracking Could Change How Hollywood Makes Movies

Emotion Tracking Could Change How Hollywood Makes Movies
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Lightwave measured how audience members reacted to the emotional intensity of Golden Globe Best Picture Winner, The Revenant, using real-time biometric data

Rob Kleiman
  • 29 february 2016

Seeing films and stories on the silver screen allows us to witness and experience gripping and harrowing tales of survival and triumph. They allow us to experience wild highs and lows that we as modern day city dwellers would never actually experience. Then when the story is finished, the popcorn is eaten, the cinematic connection is forgotten. Soon after watching a film, a viewer quickly gets emotionally further away from how they felt while watching. That’s the problem with the current moviegoing experience; filmmakers have no way to get real data or evidence supporting how viewers actually felt during a movie.

Lightwave, a pioneering bioanalytics technology company, is in the business of tracking how we feel in these micro-moments and has partnered with 20th Century Fox to quantify the audience’s engagement to the action, drama and adventure of The Revenant based on their physiological responses, such as heart rate, electrodermal activity (changes in the electrical activity of the skin), and motion.

“Measuring and understanding the emotional response to a film has historically been based on intuition and self-reported survey data,” said Rana June, CEO of Lightwave. “The insights gathered using our technology is data that’s previously been untapped by filmmakers, producers and studios. Through Lightwave, we were able to better discern our audience’s response to the film in a revolutionary new way.”

There is no shortage of highly emotional moments in Golden Globe Best Picture Winner, The Revenant, an immersive and visceral cinematic experience capturing one man’s epic adventure of survival and the extraordinary power of the human spirit. In an expedition of the uncharted American wilderness, legendary explorer Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is brutally attacked by a bear and left for dead by members of his own hunting team. In a quest to survive, Glass endures unimaginable grief as well as the betrayal of his confidant John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). Guided by sheer will and the love of his family, Glass must navigate a vicious winter in a relentless pursuit to live and find redemption.

The film is directed and co-written by renowned filmmaker, Academy Award winner Alejandro G. Iñárritu (Birdman, Babel).

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Working with 20th Century Fox’s digital marketing team, Lightwave’s technology allowed the movie studio to interpret the audience’s unfiltered and unbiased reactions throughout the film. During pre-release screenings of the Golden Globe winner, Lightwave’s technology measured an average of:

  • 15 fight-or-flight responses, triggered by something shocking or unexpected occurring in our environment. During these moments, our bodies activate an alarm to determine the appropriate response, whether it be flight or fight
  • 14 heart-pounding moments
  • 4,716 seconds where viewers were rendered motionless, indicating peak engagement levels
  • Nine moments when the audience was startled

To collect the data, moviegoers opted-in to wear a device measuring heart rate, blood volume pulse, skin temperature, electrodermal activity and motion, which was transmitted anonymously in real time to Lightwave’s software platform. Lightwave then analyzed this data using applied neuroscience techniques such as measuring orienting responses and heart rate variability, to gain insight into the emotional intensity of the viewing experience in relation to key plot points in the film.

For example, a highly intense moment during the story corresponded to changes in the audience’s heart rate, a decreased motion reading and increased skin conductance.

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From these data points, Lightwave provided a picture of the audience’s physical and emotional reactions during that specific moment in the film.

“This movie is a breathtaking and intense film that provided the perfect opportunity to leverage Lightwave’s technology in order to measure the audience’s emotional and physiological engagement with the film,” continued June.

“Through biometric data, we no longer need to rely solely on subjective measurements to infer the impact that the content is having on the audience. Why is this important? It could change storytelling forever.”

This data empowers creators to refine their approach to storytelling, optimizing the experience. It may enable scenario-specific moment-to-moment choices. It enables a two-fold shift in how the creative process can work by incorporating interval tests which would allow large studios and commercial storytellers to experiment with microanalysis of the narrative arc in real time.

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“If the vision of Lightwave is true, it’s a completely new way of understanding the human experience,” says June.

“We don’t need every single moviegoer to be wearing a Lightwave wearable device for the data to be meaningful. Our definition of success here is: if for every film that comes out there are couple hundred people that a part of this high-resolution data set providing insight into what the reaction is, an unbiased reaction to the content, it will help make better movies. It will help studios make decisions about what audiences feel.”

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“The closest that there has been to anything like Lightwave is either a turn dial, in front of you, that you are manually adjusting (which takes you out of the content-viewing experience, which is not good). Or putting a brain scanner on, which the viewer knows they are wearing. This [tool] is a way to elegantly collect this data and hopefully, because of the unobtrusive form factor, be something that people look forward to.”

People commonly use the saying “ignorance is bliss.” Does this hold true for the film industry, too? Knowing what they now know (or what’s possible to uncover based on Lightwave technology), creators and studios possess a new tool to gather knowledge and insight about their viewers and patrons. The question this raises is: equipped with this newfound knowledge, one that creates a wellspring of opportunities to manipulate and understand our emotions, do makers have a responsibility to use it ethically?

Lightwave

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