When cinemas start watching back


Metaphysics famously pushed the boundaries of content creation when it produced deepfake TikTok videos of Tom Cruise. It even brought Elvis back to life, leading him to victory on America's Got Talent. As the encroachment of technology on the creative professions continues at breakneck speed, tensions are beginning to boil over. Hollywood writers have even staged strikes in a fight against what they see as a shift toward an AI-dominated creative landscape.

While technology has consistently been at the forefront of cinematic evolution, there's a growing unease among many over distinguishing between reality and fabrication, not to mention replacing writers with AI in the entertainment world. But on the other side of the silver screen, technology is about to bring the concept of smart cinemas to life and put audiences in the spotlight.

Currently, film production houses extensively preview upcoming summer blockbusters, with many films undergoing edits, modifications, or even complete rewrites based on these preliminary viewings, followed by audience feedback forms. But a pioneering cinema in Bristol promises to revolutionize this process. It could allow filmmakers to gauge instantaneous audience reactions, eliminating the need for post-viewing inquiries.

New cinema records audiences' biometric responses

The Instrumented Auditorium is touted as the world's first innovative cinema designed to measure audience reactions in real-time. It promises insights into audience behavior like never before and is on a mission to transform the landscape of content creation and research.

The project is the brainchild of researchers at the University of Bristol and is funded by a £400,000 grant from the Wolfson Foundation. But if you dare to take a peak behind the curtain, you will find cutting-edge technology recording the biometric responses of its viewers. Everything from heart rates and eye movements to blood pressure, brain activity, and even the electrical properties of the skin are measured.

Every nuance of human interaction is captured, from advanced remote sensing fixed to seats, walls, and ceilings to the precision of eye-tracking and biometric monitoring tools. Elevate this with an immersive AV display, boasting the brilliance of Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos-Compliant projections up to 16k resolution, all within a spacious auditorium that comfortably houses 36 individuals.

“If we want to understand whether a new experience or new technology is working, we have to ask the audience. The Instrumented Auditorium will allow us to stream data that captures audience responses moment by moment, providing unique insights that take us way beyond current questionnaire-based methods."

Professor Iain Gilchrist, a Neuropsychologist at the University of Bristol

The technology empowers researchers to analyze people's subconscious emotional and empathic responses by monitoring various biometric responses. These insights will be used to promote future commissioning, directing, and production approaches for new content creation using emerging creative technologies.

Beyond Entertainment: Broader implications

While the immediate applications in film and television are apparent, the potential for this research extends even further. There's immense potential in understanding how individual differences in reactions can be linked to mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression. As we delve deeper into understanding the human psyche, facilities like the Instrumented Auditorium could play a crucial role in mental health research.

Those behind the project are thinking bigger than Hollywood movies and attempting to create a new future vision by reframing their understanding of the public's role. Ultimately, it presents them as architects of a shared digital destiny. By immersing participants in hyper-realistic environments, they can simulate decisions and strategies for pressing global concerns, whether healthcare paradigms or urban development's intricacies.

It's also thought that locally, this auditorium could aid in the conceptualization of innovative products, reimagining public spaces, redefining educational trajectories, and addressing potential ethical dilemmas well in advance. In the right hands, it could become a beacon of collaborative potential by placing the public at its heart.

Instead of being passive consumers, participants can directly shape and refine emerging products, services, and strategies. This ensures more expedited and apt solutions and nurtures an environment of shared creation. The auditorium's alignment with the MyWorld initiative further magnifies such an ethos. This partnership weaves a dense network with over 30 luminaries from the academic and corporate spheres, including iconic entities like Netflix, BBC, and Aardman Animations, to name a few.

As the Instrumented Auditorium prepares to open its doors in May 2024, the world will be watching closely. Bridging the gap between audience engagement, content creation, and scientific research, this pioneering cinema may well represent the future of entertainment and beyond. But it also poses many more questions on what happens if the biometric data ever leaves the four walls of the Instrumented Auditorium.

Many of us have found ourselves steering clear of specific content on platforms like YouTube, TikTok, Spotify, or Netflix, worried it might disrupt our finely tuned algorithms. As we dream of a brighter future, it's essential to recognize the potential dangers of handing over biometrics and control to AI and ML, which know us better than we know ourselves.

In a world where our reactions could soon spark immediate feedback in the real world, we must be cautious not to inadvertently unleash a Pandora's box of unintended consequences. After all, technology should be our tool, not our master.


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