That's (Audience) Entertainment! Barco partnership adds interactive dimension to cinema package


“Audiences will soon interact with the big screen, engaging in a dialogue with both content and each other through group motion and sound!” That’s the idea behind iD– Interactive Dimension, which Barco and Audience Entertainment jointly announced in March. “This new, interactive technology platform,” they proclaimed, “is creating a new cinema environment that enables moviegoers to physically connect and control the screen’s content the moment they take their seats.”

CinemaCon 2014 marked the official launch of “CinemaBarco,” which offers several technological initiatives aimed at enhancing the theatrical experience. After highlighting the vision and mission behind the innovative program in our July interview with Barco’s dedicated CinemaVangelist, Ted Schilowitz, Film Journal International now presents an equally exclusive backgrounder on the Interactive Dimension in the multi-component package.

By its own description, New York City-based Audience Entertainment (AE) is a media technology company “that makes big screens interactive by understanding and reacting to the audience." “Most importantly,” for chief executive officer Barry Grieff, “the very idea of going to the movies is about community-building and engagement as a group. Our iD technology allows a group of people to actually affect outcomes on the screen together. So when everyone talks about social media, we think our Interactive Dimension and cinema are the real social media…because this is not about you on your phone or at your house communicating with someone on their phone or at their house. This is about 500 people in a movie theatre, in a concert arena or at a baseball stadium, all joining forces to reach a common, shared goal. And that is unique.”

While the context-aware technology behind Interactive Dimension (“There’s 2D, 3D, 4D and now iD,” Grieff declares) is not all that unique, the complex software and patented algorithms that AE has developed certainly are. “Think of it as ‘Kinect for Xbox 360’ or a similar motion controller that works for a large group of people, with vastly expanded processing power,” he proposes. Avid FJI readers may remember AE’s iD from our previous reporting on technologies that are aimed at “Engaging the Audience” and other “human joystick”-type games used in cinema advertising by the likes of Samsung and Disney Cruise Lines.

The hardware is a turnkey system, AE maintains, minimally invasive and easy to set up in a new installation as well as in a retrofit. It includes a microphone and camera inside the auditorium linked to a dedicated hub server co-located with the projector equipment, regardless of who manufactures it. “We use motion capture with a natural user interface of arms and hands,” Grieff explains. “So, from our perspective, the beauty is that iD requires no additional pieces of machinery. We can integrate a mobile phone if we so choose to. You do not need one,” he assures. “You can just sit there and iD will react to your body movement. Our system does motion capture, augmented reality. It can be triggered by sound and color, a whole variety of ways in which people engage with the screen… The proprietary algorithms relate to the group engagement.”

Grieff provides the example of one hundred people ‘driving’ a car up on the screen with their hands in the air. When 75 lean to the right, the car will move right, and if 50 each lean in either direction, it will go straight. “If all 100 lean to the left, and nobody to the right,” he chuckles, “the car will probably go off the road.” The system reacts in real time to the audience, Grieff assures. “And it learns, it is a smart system,” as well as very easy to understand. “In the movie theatre you do not have time to teach people how to use a controller or spend half an hour explaining a videogame.”

Grieff calls the partnership with Barco a great match. “AE focuses on great software and audience marketing; we have experience in advertising and content, music, film. Barco is a preeminent provider of visual solutions, a hardware manufacturer and distributor of projection systems. They already are partners with cinemas and have a presence in cinemas all over the world.” Before partnering with Barco, he acknowledges, “when we were describing our concept, everybody agreed that it is very nice but wanted to know: How are you going to do that? Who is going to make the boxes and who will install and maintain them? We were able to do this on a small scale in the past, but on the size of the rollout that we are looking at now, Barco can really provide the necessary infrastructure, the talent and wherewithal to get it done.”

The launch release talked about a rollout to 3,000 screens in North America, China, Western Europe and Latin America. “Of course we would like to be on 10,000 screens worldwide, but let’s not get too crazy too early.” The idea of learning to walk before one runs “is very analogous to what RealD did,” Grieff finds. “We are talking to all the exhibitors that we believe are the most forward-thinking chains and the most interested [in finding] new ways to increase their bottom line.” The first 100 iD systems were being installed in the U.S. as we spoke for this article. Grieff also confirmed installation plans for Japan, South Korea, Belgium and Mexico. “The idea is beginning to build a global network right away, so that when we speak to the big brands of the world, we can do things with them that no one else has been able to do.”

Grieff says the networking capabilities of iD are another differentiating factor. “By connecting theatres in the United States with other theatres across the country and with theatres in China, England and Mexico, all over the world, in fact, we are going to enable them to…play games from country to country, one city against another city…always engaging groups of people. This has not been possible before.”

While we have been predominantly talking about fun and games so far, Audience Entertainment has much broader plans and sees wider applications for iD. First off, Grieff mentions working with the studios on enhanced movie trailers. “With all the game tie-ins to films, what could be better than combining both?” Alternative content is another surefire way to interact. And, indeed, Adam Mizel, the chief operating officer of Cinedigm, joined the AE board of directors in support of the idea. Grieff offers as an example an extreme-sports event where the audience gets to choose which of the many treacherous paths the snowboarder will have to take downhill.

While iD-fueled advertising has already proven to be a success over the past five years, with higher and highest retention rates leading to increased pricing and shared revenue, Grieff calls this only the beginning. “Suppose M&Ms wanted to come out with a new flavor,” he says, providing a fictitious albeit hands-on example. “These M&Ms could be dropping on the screen and the audience could actually reach up and touch the one that they want to see manufactured. Or the ones that they do not want.” Marketers will be enabled to more effectively research how the public reacts to their products, and that even includes movies. Using the camera to register the biometrics—never the face, he assures—reveals whether someone is leaning forward or looking away, talking to their seat neighbor, playing with their cellphone. “This will help to create more effective messaging, and research dollars,” he foresees. “We are envisioning people taking this a lot farther.”

To further this end, AE released a software development kit “that will enable the creative communities, producers and storytellers everywhere to create content for our platform. We are making this platform as flexible, as inexpensive and as easy to install as possible to encourage group interaction in all of these environments.” Grieff says this “agenda” is based on very realistic assumptions. “We are one small company that cannot begin to create the volume and the breadth of content that all of these incredibly talented people can produce—once they know that this is available. We think this is going to open the floodgates.”

Alluding to the iTunes and app store models, he opines, “Once you allow the platform to be used by other people, all sorts of things are being developed. We are envisioning games from the big game companies, interactive content for kids, and yes, interactive movies at some point.” It’s kind of reminiscent of inventive producer, director and all-around movie marketer William Castle and his 1961 “Punishment Poll” of moviegoers to determine the fate of Mr. Sardonicus.

In 1985, while designing the first interactive laserdisc for Pioneer, Barry Grieff learned “a lot about how people and audiences engage with content.” Therefore, content should fit and maximize the delivery system that it is on. “Our belief is this belongs on the big screen. We are not interested in all screen solutions. There are a lot of people and systems that do one-on-one… Can we accommodate this? The answer is yes. But we are real believers in big sound, big picture and lots of people that are encouraging each other to participate and play along.”

In closing, Grieff offers a “fascinating byproduct” from marketing research that Volvo did on their iD-enhanced ads in the United Kingdom. “Among the questions that the media agency asked was how cinemagoers enjoyed the film. They found that people who played the game liked the movie more. The conclusion they drew was the game acted like an icebreaker that made people more comfortable. This encourages people to be talking to each other and smile at one another.”

Hands up or down, that’s the power of the shared experience.