Unique experiment during 'War Horse' play in Shanghai

The National Theatre of China, Chinese news agency Xinhuanet and CWI performed a unique sensor experiment during a series of theater performances of 'War Horse' in Shanghai. During the experiments, volunteers were equipped with bio-sensors which recorded the body response data throughout the performance.

Publication date: 15-12-2015

The National Theatre of China, Chinese news agency Xinhuanet and CWI performed a unique sensor experiment during a series of theater performances of 'War Horse' in Shanghai. During the experiments, volunteers were equipped with bio-sensors which recorded the body response data throughout the performance. The data will be used for analysis of the degree of interest in the performance and the individual differences of the theater audience. The initial results will be published later this week in a press conference in Shanghai.

Understanding audience experience is very important for theatres. Knowing how audiences react to different scenes, lighting and music helps theatres to produce engaging performances. Conventionally, theatres gauge audience experience through applause, interviews and box office sales. However, these are rather inaccurate and imprecise measurements. Audiences would for instance applaud out of courtesy at the end of the show. Similarly, it is difficult for audience to describe their experience in every scene of the performance during interviews. The inadequacies of these measurements are compelling reasons for theatres to explore new ways of understanding audience experience.

CWI’s Distributed and Interactive Systems (DIS) group specializes in researching and developing biosensors to collect physiological responses of audiences during performances. The existing collaboration between CWI and Xinhuanet transpired into a tripartite collaboration when the National Theatre of China showed great interest in the biosensors. The collaboration involved preparing and conducting an experiment to collect physiological responses of audience during the acclaimed theatre production 'War Horse'. CWI sent a team of four members of the DIS group to facilitate the experiment in Shanghai.

The experiments involved putting small electrical sensor stickers on the ring finger and index finger of the audiences during the theater performance. The sensors measure the galvanic skin response (GSR), serving as an indirect indicator of alertness. The experiment was successfully conducted over five days of 'War Horse' performances in the end of November. Valuable data from more than 150 participants were collected using the biosensors, including Chinese celebrities such as TV show hosts and playwrights. The experiment was well-received by the participating audience.

The play 'War Horse' was selected for the experiment as it meets the criteria of reproductivity, and has the liveliness and the classic features required by the pilot experiment. The play is also very suitable for cross-cultural research in the future. The Chinese version of 'War Horse' is a joint project between the National Theatres of China and Great Britain. The production team is keen to find out whether adapting a British award-winning play will excite Chinese audience the same way as it did the British audience, and whether adult and children, male and female, and audience with different interest in theatre plays will respond to the 'War Horse' performance differently. 'War Horse' is currently very popular in China. It has garnered more than 45,000 Chinese viewers within less than 2 months of staging and it steadily took the top position in China's box office.

CWI is cooperating with Chinese news agency Xinhuanet since 2014, aiming to develop the first advanced user experience laboratory in China. Both institutions will explore the use of sensor technology to better assess the user experience during media consumption. CWI, Xinhuanet and the National Theatre of China will publish their result next Sunday 20 December during a press conference in Shanghai. CEO of Xinhuanet Tian Shubin, CWI director Jos Baeten, and several researchers involved in the experiments will be present.