Scary or cool? Directors can track how that film makes you feel

Behind the scenes: What happens when you wear a biosensor to the movies? CNET's Stephen Shankland traveled to Cannes to find out.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
Stephen Shankland worked at CNET from 1998 to 2024 and wrote about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
8 min read

Graphics show individuals' reaction to films at the New Directors' Showcase at the Cannes Lions conference.
Graphics show individuals' reactions to films at the New Directors' Showcase at the Cannes Lions conference. Stephen Shankland/CNET

CANNES, France -- Therapists the world over advise people to get in touch with their emotions. Now a London startup called Studio XO hopes to profit from the idea -- starting with a splashy demonstration of what happened when 2,300 people all shared their feelings at once.

The event here on Thursday came during ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi's annual New Directors' Showcase at the Cannes Lions conference for the marketing and advertising industry. Since 1991, Saatchi & Saatchi has shown an hour-long reel of new moviemakers' work, and this year it picked Studio XO, which combines bio-sensor technology with fashion, to add a new emotional dimension to the experience.

At the "Feel the Reel" event, the audience's emotional state became part of the show itself. Data gathered from bio-sensor wristbands was piped into computer animation technology that showed individual and collective emotional responses.

Biosensors go to the movies (pictures)

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"We're breaking down the fourth wall," the barrier that ordinarily separates the audience from what's happening on stage, said Studio XO co-founder Nancy Tilbury.

As digital sensors and wearable computing spread beyond R&D labs into the mainstream computer industry, emotions could become a much more explicit part of our lives. Studio XO hopes emotion monitors will become as common as fitness monitors today. Dell is examining emotions for reshaping computer interfaces. Emotion data could help people keep an eye on elderly parents and help teachers understand when students are engaged or bored. And here at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, the emotions are gold for advertising agencies that want to gauge ads' effectiveness and aim them only at a receptive population.

For the same reason advertisers like it, though, emotion tracking poses problems. Emotions are intensely personal, the kind of thing that people ordinarily can be most reluctant to share as they watch TV, browse the Web, go to work, and even talk to spouses. Automatically logged emotions could provide children and teenagers with a new type of worrisomely personal information to broadcast over social networks.

The audience prepares for Saatchi & Saatchi's New Directors' Showcase at Cannes Lions.
The audience prepares for Saatchi & Saatchi's New Directors' Showcase at Cannes Lions. Stephen Shankland/CNET

A 'visceral response'

Feel the Reel was out of the ordinary, though -- a group event where sharing was part of the point. Audience members' wristbands monitored their emotional state through proprietary sensor technology, showed that state with a color-changing LED, and beamed the information to a central server.

That data was fed into a computer-art display that showed the entire audience its reaction to each episode in the video. On the wristband LEDs, a spectrum running from blue through green, red, and then magenta signified greater levels of arousal.

"It's a good visceral response to see how people are reacting," said Tom Eslinger, Saatchi & Saatchi's worldwide digital creative director, who oversaw the selection of videos for the directors' reel.

Most of the time, most audience members' LEDs glowed just calm blue or a slightly more agitated green -- even during Tatia Pilieva's provocatively awkward video " First Kiss," which records complete strangers as they meet and kiss. But reactions were much more dramatic for "Grotesque Photobooth," a not-terribly-safe-for-work video by Donato Sansone featuring lots of flesh and a little genitalia.

"The whole show jumped," said Studio XO co-founder and Chief Technology Officer Ben Males, who was watching the collective reaction on a computer screen offstage. "It was quite amazing."

Before the show, people bantered nervously as they scrutinized their wristbands. "It's to tell you how hung over you are," quipped one audience member. "It's a bit nerve-racking. People can't lie about what they're seeing in the films," added another.

Indeed, there was a clinical theme to the event, as if the audience was undergoing a diagnostic procedure. The wristbands were distributed in the same kind of sterile packaging that would contain a syringe or gauze bandage, and spotlit women dressed as nurses showed how to use the devices shortly before Studio XO calibrated the gadgets with a sequence of startlingly flashing lights.

The emotion sensor, made by Studio XO and sold to ad firm Saatchi & Saatchi, has detectors that press against the skin on the inside of the wrist.
The emotion sensor, made by Studio XO and sold to ad firm Saatchi & Saatchi, has detectors that press against the skin on the inside of the wrist. Stephen Shankland/CNET

A clinical audience, too

Perhaps the calm reactions during the show itself reflected the unusual setting, suggested Felipe Barreto of Brazilian ad agency CasaDigital.

"The viewers here are very analytical," he said. "We're not here to get emotional."

But there's a difference between watching video and watching real life. People may not have been powerfully moved by "Ghost of a Smile" by Simon Bonde and Peder, but seeing its brutal bare-knuckle boxing in reality would doubtless send a lot more adrenaline flowing.

Perhaps the best test was Alberto Belli, who had one of those real-life moments at the showcase, when his risque video "It's not Porn" was featured. For most of the show, his wristband glowed either blue or green, but when his own clip showed, his nervousness pushed the device into the red zone.

Nevertheless, the wristbands were intriguing. Jose Luis Villar, also from CasaDigital, saw that his wristband showed only blue or green, but he wondered why the band worn by the girl next to him displayed a red status. "What is happening? She was more intense than me," Villar said.

In the control room behind the scenes, technicals from Studio XO, Marshmallow Laser Feast, Elektropastete, and Prettybird oversaw the New Directors' Showcase.
In the control room behind the scenes, technicians from Studio XO, Marshmallow Laser Feast, Elektropastete, and Prettybird oversaw the New Directors' Showcase. Stephen Shankland/CNET

Emotions and work

In Tilbury's view, people will log their emotional information daily using sensors built into smartwatches or other gadgets. That'll let them keep a digital diary they can review privately or share.

"Today, we know where we're taking photos, but we don't know how we feel," Tilbury said. "The medium-term application of this technology is to use it in closed environments like stadiums and cinemas. The longer-term is aim is much more interesting: to add a sensor layer to your life. You come home at the end of the day and you see a map of how you were feeling in different locations. You learn about your own human biological patterns, not just how many steps you took or calories you burned."

Saatchi & Saatchi bought thousands of the wristbands for its own use. They made their debut at Cannes Lions, but the company plans to use them for theatrical events where it's trying to woo clients and attract new talent, Eslinger said. And they could be useful for focus groups or other circumstances where somebody might want to judge true reactions.

"It's subconscious. You can't control it," Males said.

That might be OK for focus groups and rock concerts, but don't expect everyone to be eager about it.

Context has an influence over whether people are willing to show their own status LED to others, said Linda Weitgasser, a Saatchi & Saatchi creative executive who helped oversee the event. "With content [like watching a film], you're quite open about it, but when I stand up in a meeting and it turns pink, I feel really exposed," Weitgasser said.

The wristbands are a curiosity because you can see both your own reactions and those of people nearby.

"Especially in meetings, it was interesting to see when somebody is getting excited," said Alex Sattlecker, a creative executive at Saatchi & Saatchi. "Although you don't know -- it may be they are annoyed."

Studio XO's wrist-mounted emtion sensors glow green when a person's emotions go beyond calm.
Studio XO's wrist-mounted emotion sensors glow green when a person's emotions go beyond calm. Stephen Shankland/CNET

Shortcomings and oversharing

A private log is one thing. Sharing is quite another -- especially for children.

"For pre-adolescents and adolescents, there is nothing more powerful than the shared experience. Many seek out a 'tribe' during this stage as they start to explore leaving the safety of their families," said Bea Arthur, CEO and founder of online therapy site Pretty Padded Room. "At this stage, it's 'on the mind, out the mouth,' and with Facebook at their fingers, it becomes 'on the mind, out the mouth, on the Internet.'"

So emotion logging could add a new worry to parents' lives. As children grow up, they realize there's a downside to being so open, said Jeffrey Arnett, a Clark University professor who just finished surveying young adults on their technology choices. He's not convinced that most people really want to let others know what's really going on in their heads.

Emerging adults aged 18 to 29 "gain much greater control over their emotions," Arnett said. "They realize there is a cost to displaying themselves emotionally and otherwise over social media, and they become more circumspect about it."

But William Scheckel, an adjunct professor for social media at the New York Institute of Technology, thinks the horse has already left the barn. We already overshare, even if it's not as explicit as digitally recorded emotion data.

"We already use the existing social platforms, especially Facebook, to log our emotional state," he said. "We casually weave our emotional state into the monologue of our posts so well and often that Facebook allows advertisers to target the psychographics of their audience so they can single out people who are happy, depressed, stressed, or angry."

Arnett is skeptical of how well attributes like heart rate, skin sweat, temperature, and even brain imaging measure emotions in the first place.

"If I really want to know somebody's emotions, I would regard asking them 'How do you feel?' as a lot more reliable and valid than a lot of these physiological and neurological measures," Arnett said. "Nobody would want to stake any important consequences on those sorts of values of emotions."

Studio XO won't detail its technical approach. But Tilbury, who led wearable-technology work at Dutch electronics giant Philips, said her 10-person company is developing it beyond today's simple spectrum of calm to aroused.

Actors dressed as nurses dramatized the use of Studio XO's emotion sensors.
Actors dressed as nurses dramatized the use of Studio XO's emotion sensors. Stephen Shankland/CNET

Commercial interest in emotion sensing

Studio XO isn't alone in seeing commercial potential.

Dell's research and development arm is examining emotion sensing and investigating how it could change computer interfaces.

"Our research could potentially use a person's brain waves combined with their heart rate and other body reactions to infer when an individual is experiencing a particular emotion," said Jai Menon, Dell's chief research officer. Closest to Dell's business, that could mean a computer that -- if trusted and under privacy controls -- could tailor recommendations to our moods. Farther afield, it could mean teachers that structure lesson plans around their students' moods, or cars that place emergency calls in part because a driver experienced extreme fear.

"We would become more accustomed to computers sharing information with others on our behalf, and we would increasingly have a more intimate relationship with our technology," Menon said. "As it learns our emotions, moods, and body responses, we would have greater trust in its recommendations."

And emotion logging would be very useful for a company called Making Care Easier, a private site that lets family members monitor the state of elderly parents or relatives who are ill.

"It is important to know how mom is feeling, so family and friends can track her health, suggest ways for other family and friends to help, or help mom plan her day," said co-founder Julie Fry.

The site sends its care updates only to those a person has invited into a private "care team."

Getting mood information into the company's system requires a person -- so far.

"It is still a nascent market, but we've created our platform to accept data from wearables as it develops," Fry said.

So it seems emotions will figure in our digital lives, despite issues of privacy, personal preference, and measurement accuracy.

"The body is about to become a really interesting node for technology," Tilbury said. "We're banking our business on this."