Getting into the head of your audience

We recently invested in a low-cost, portable EEG neuroheadset for measuring brain activity. The technology is designed for monitoring players’ responses to computer games, while playing them — arousal levels, boredom, meditative state, that kind of thing.

The idea for exploring this technology in a design context came from Panos Mavros, a graduate from our MSc by Research in Digital Media and Culture programme.

It’s a new and exciting technology with many applications, and we are approaching it critically. In collaboration with the Scottish Documentary Institute, Panos has experimented with recording and visualising the neural states of an audience member watching a documentary film.

This idea connects with so-called neuromarketing: sit a volunteer audience member in front of a tv commercial or movie trailer and tweak the program content to maximise their positive arousal — if that’s the goal. As far as we can tell, there are advantages in talking through the resultant dynamic diagram of arousal patterns with the volunteer to elicit further insights into the content.

The technology has also been used in musical performances, eg where the neural signals from the sax player feeds into an algorithm that modulates an electro-acoustic performance.

Man standing behind rostrum, curtains in background, operator at consol

Thinking between riffs — Improvising sax player with neuroheadset.

We also have a desk-mounted eye tracking device to record where the subject is looking on a media screen, and recording their neural states at the same time. There are many such body sensing technologies. The trick is to integrate them, and move them out of the laboratory.

Our “serious” work involves a set of formal experiments correlating people’s neural responses to images of landscapes with what they say about those landscapes. This study involves Jenny Roe and Peter Aspinall from Heriot-Watt University. This project also involves mapping pedestrians’ neural responses as they walk around outdoors.

The technology raises interesting questions about engagement, emotion, mood, and even co-creation, and how and whether these can or should be monitored — presumably to improve the experience of audiences, entertainers, co-creators, performers and other “content providers.”

We are looking for volunteers for our trials — preferably people not in the creative production side of the media. Please make yourself known to us before the end of May 2012 if you are interested.

For more on audience issues and emotion read the following blog posts:

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