Movie Theaters Can Track Your Emotions

Do you remember George Orwell’s novel 1984?

In the dystopian world that Orwell creates, it is mandatory for every household to have a ‘telescreen,’ which is essentially a television with the ability to allow authorities to monitor its viewers. The authorities ensure that the viewers are watching the appropriate propaganda and reacting accordingly. Viewers who were not having appropriate reactions to what was being displayed on the screen were brought to the “Thought Police.”

Unfortunately, it seems as though fiction is becoming reality. Technology has been developed to film theatergoers as they watch and react to movies and the preceding commercials.

Aralia Systems and Machine Vision Lab, two of the companies who have collaborated to create this technology, claim that these cameras will also stop people from pirating the films, using infrared light beams that reflect off cameras.

As Machine Vision Lab’s Dr. Abdul Farooq explained to a writer for PhysOrg, “We plan to build on the capabilities of current technology used in cinemas to detect criminals making pirate copies of films with video cameras. We want to devise instruments that will be capable of collecting data that can be used by cinemas to monitor audience reactions to films and adverts and also to gather data about attention and audience movement. It is envisaged that once the technology has been fine tuned it could be used by market researchers in all kinds of settings, including monitoring reactions to shop window displays.”

Isn’t this what focus groups are for?

In recording moviegoers, researchers will be able to use the information to sell products. They would also be able to sell the information itself. In giving our patronage to move theaters that have these cameras, we are effectively giving these companies both our money and information that they can profit from; we would be paying to be watched.

How would you feel about essentially being part of a focus group without any compensation?

Furthermore, these cameras could easily read an emotion that a patron is expressing, but not in reaction to the movie. Someone could be angry at another audience member for talking loudly during the film, and not angry at what is going on in the movie itself.

What about the couples that make out in the back of the theater? It’s doubtful that they are doing so because the movie is romantic. Also, what about audience members that don’t have typical reactions to films? This could be someone with Aspergers, or simply someone who laughs at inappropriate moments (like those who laugh during horror movies.) When you consider these scenarios, do you think filming moviegoers is an effective way to do market research?

If this technology becomes widely used in theaters, moviegoers must either consent to being recorded, or forgo watching movies in theaters altogether. Furthermore, if retailers begin utilizing this technology for their window displays, we will essentially be filmed just for passing by a store. It is true that we are filmed in many places already (in stores, at traffic lights, etc.,) but this technology not only films people, it stores data about their emotional reactions. Feels a little like a science fiction novel. George Orwell is probably rolling in his grave.

Do you think this technology will become widely used? What effect would it have on box office sales, or on the retail industry? Do you feel comfortable with being filmed during a movie, or when looking at a store window?

You may read one of the many articles regarding this issue here.

3 responses to “Movie Theaters Can Track Your Emotions”

  1. Jeff says:

    I believe this may hinge on a privacy issue. While we are in no way guaranteed total privacy while in a public place, I do believe we are guaranteed the right not to have our face/image/likeness be used without our consent to further some sort of business goal. Consider any TV show that is recording in a specific place such as a bar or casino. People are either informed that filming is taking place via signs that are posted in the filming area (and therefore consent to be filmed by entering said area) or by use of release waivers. For a cinema to obtain such consent, they would probably have to put a release on each ticket stub that implied that your entry to the theater waives all right to privacy and release from any material claims of liability while in that location. And even then, it would be a stretch, as I feel that the vast majority of this research would take place using facial expressions of emotion. As knowledge of this becomes more and more widespread, I think theaters will see a reduction in business. Our expressions of emotion (even fragments and micros) are certainly the most public part of how we feel, especially to those who are trained to spot them but what causes those emotions is certainly private. Therefore, those feeling are only subject to publicity if we choose to share them. And if we can use Cal Lightman’s lesson to Ria as an example when she was learning to respect privacy and boundaries in the workplace: “Everyone has things that they don’t wish to share!”

  2. Peets says:

    I suspect if this really becomes a problem I can see a new fashion emerge: face covers. After all, you ARE in a free society so it would not be possible to ban their use..

    Any action creates an opposite reaction – not just in science, but also in humans. It just takes a bit more pushing..

  3. Keith D. says:

    As market research I think these will be a tremendous waste of resources. There comes a point when a company should simply pay attention to its customers rather than trying to be sneaky and grab the information they want without doing so face to face. That’s terribly disrespectful. But I doubt most in our society today would fully grasp that.

    This reminds me a lot of how mind-reading characters are portrayed in movies and TV. There seems to always be an obligatory scene where the mind-reader intentionally or inadvertently reads the mind of some random other character and becomes offended by whatever is in their thoughts. The mind-reader is typically female and the other character is typically a male thinking about how attractive she is. But that strikes me as foolish and disingenuous. A real mind-reading attractive woman would have long since realized how nearly every male thinks about her, and those thoughts would be as ordinary and mundane as the hour hand slowly spinning on a clock. I doubt she’d pay any mind to it at all.

    The marketers attempting to use this kind of technology strike me as the movie version of a mind-reader, ignorant of the myriad possibilities that are represented by an individual’s emotional displays, only reading into them what they want to read into them. The real benefits to be reaped with a technology like this are by those who would already recognize the reality of what they’re seeing and finding useful applications for the information.

    An example are those dogs that are trained to alert their owner that they’re about to have an epileptic seizure so that appropriate steps can be taken to protect the person having the seizure. A system like this could potentially be used to help people in this way. Or to watch for people having a stroke, or who might be developing a serious mental illness, or who may be becoming suicidal etc.

    As with all technologies, its possible applications are both positive and negative, but people who are ignorant will more tend to the negative applications while remaining ignorant of their positive applications.

    Personally, I would strongly resent this technology being used by marketers in any way. I don’t want to provide them with information on how to better sell me things I neither want nor need. And I certainly don’t want to pay for the “privilege.”

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