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How Hollywood is using data to hack your emotions

Lightwave is making waves in the data-tracking world.


Cynthia McKelvey


Posted on Jan 14, 2016   Updated on May 27, 2021, 8:59 am CDT

Movie directors know how to manipulate your emotions. They do it with music, carefully crafted shots, and other little psychological tricks to give you the biggest emotional bang for your buck.

Now, they can tap right into your brain. 

Lightwave is software that couples with wearable technology and measures bioactivity. But instead of measuring steps and calories burned, it measures emotion. 20th Century Fox partnered with Lightwave to see the rise and fall of the audience’s emotional arousal during a recent screening of the western survival movie The Revenant.

In the movie, Leonardo DiCaprio plays a frontiersman who is attacked by a bear and later abandoned by his party. The physical and psychological thrill of the movie proved to play out in the audience’s responses.


Lightwave gave monitors to the audience that tracked their heartbeats and movements (or lackthereof—audience members stayed very still while they were transfixed on some of the film’s tensest moments).

“What we aim to do is to take what historically happens in a lab setting and bring it to an environment where people can behave naturally,” Rana June, CEO of Lightwave, told the Daily Dot. June herself is a DJ and has a background in big data analytics. She thinks Lightwave can help entertainers use data to enhance the emotional payoff of their performances.

Lightwave also helped track the emotional peaks and valleys of a raging dance party thrown at South by Southwest in 2014.

For The Revenant, Lightwave used data trackers capable of monitoring people’s heart rates at a rate of 10Hz, much faster than the typical fitness tracker.

“That’s a different scale of data that allows for applied neuroscience techniques to be used,” June said. The trackers also monitored skin conductivity, a signal often used in the laboratory to measure states of emotional arousal like surprise and suspense.

While the technology has an obvious benefit for companies and performers to use data to make better, more emotional entertainment, June said that consumers are interested, too.

“In a sporting event or a music event, [Lightwave] provides the ability for the audience member to feel like they’re a pixel in the show,” June said. Just as people are interested in seeing their daily activities plotted over a chart throughout the day with fitness trackers, people are also interested to see their emotional states plotted over the course of a night out.

“We are really, truly passionate about being able to make this something that becomes a new standard of human engagement,” June said. “Not just on the website clicks level, but from an experience level.”

Lead image provided courtesy of Lightwave

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*First Published: Jan 14, 2016, 9:51 pm CST