Oscillations Audience Engagement Research Findings

During the Winter 2018 quarter, the Oscillations Knight Lab team was tasked in exploring the question: what constitutes an engaging live movement arts performance for audiences? Oscillations’ Chief Technology Officer, Ilya Fomin, told the team at quarter’s start that the startup aims to create performing arts experiences that are “better than reality.” In response, our team spent the quarter seeking to understand what is reality with qualitative research. Three members of the team interviewed more than 20 audience members about their experiences watching performances and what elements of the performance captivated them most. Through this broad exploration, our team learned the key factors that positively and negatively influence an audience member’s experience, so we can offer the Oscillations team insights into how to make their virtual reality experiences the most captivating for viewers and “better than reality.”

The following document details our research and the takeaways we hope to further research in the following quarter.

The Process

After identifying user research as a core component of the team’s objectives this quarter, three members started broadly interviewing performers and audience members, including those who attended performances at the Joffrey, Ballet, Steppenwolf Theatre Company and The Pentagon Theater. We also interviewed Billy Siegenfeld, a Northwestern University Professor of Dance, who offered his academic opinion on audience experience from the perspectives of both a dancer and professor.

User Interview Guide
Guide used to interview performers and audience members

After some initial interviews, we developed an interview guide, which can be seen to the right. This guide addresses the familiarity of our interviewee with the movement arts, their perspective of what constitutes an engaging live performance and how that is different from a 2D experience. We also prompted them to discuss their experience seeing movement arts performances in the presence of others and whether they thought virtual reality could fill any holes in how they experienced dance. Through our interviews, we prompted interviewees to define their language, seeing as most mentioned there is an “energy” in the room when they are in a live performance. We sought to really understand those terms and get beneath the surface to evaluate this language.

After conducting each interview, the interviewer transcribed their notes and discussed with the team what they believed was most insightful from their conversation. We also created a Note.ly board, which can be seen below, that is organized by familiarity level and highlights the most key points and quotes from our interviewees. In addition to this Note.ly board, Joo-Young, Ben and Harriet conducted two insights brainstorm sessions that helped define key insights going forward into the next quarter.

Interview Insights
Interview Insights

In all, we interviewed more than 25 performers and audience members this quarter. While we concluded this quarter’s user research was quite comprehensive, we intend to take our targeted insights from this broad research and conduct a deep dive on one or two of them next quarter.


The team identified five key takeaways about audience engagement during a live movement arts performances. We believe these five insights highlight the elements on a deeper level that engage audiences during a performance and gives us a better understanding of how audience perceive the movement arts live.

Our insights are the following:

  1. Audience members value interpersonal connection between performers and themselves. Our interviewees noted that they feel it is important to connect with a performer whether that is with eye contact or identifying with the feeling the artist is emoting to the audience. That emotional connection draws them in.

    1. “An audience has to connect to an audience member and recognize the emotions they are emitting That audience member won’t stop watching then. They will emotionally connect.” - Natalya Carrico, a pole dancer based in Chicago

    2. “Seeing a dancer’s eyes is key….you can see the emotion they are putting into the dance. You lose something if a dancer’s face is covered.” - Jack MacLaughlin, audience member at Tether event

    3. “With tv and film, we have the advantage of doing several shots and closeup shots and slicing them all together. I think with dance it is really important for audience members to see closeups of the face.” Alex Wong, Oscillations dancer

    4. “I teach connectivity with the face. The audience doesn’t know dance, so they are looking for an emotion they can relate to.” - Conor McKenzie, Oscillations dancer

  2. Being in the presence of others during a live experience distinguishes it from watching performances in 2D. There is an inherent collective feeling that exists in a live experience where audience member feel they are part of a group. This feeling is underscored by ambient noise from others such as breathing and raw audience reactions. Audience members may not consciously recognize the collective quality of these small sensations, but they give audiences a feeling of of being a part of a group and not alone.

    1. “I just feel a better connection with the art due to the environment and sharing a space with the artist. It’s more of a physical experience in that sense.” - Rufus, Joffrey Ballet performance attendee
  3. Music is integral to a movement arts performance both in a live and 2D experience. Most audience members (and performers) we spoke with highlighted how a performance isn’t a performance without music. To them, music and movement go hand in hand to create an engaging performance. This is a key insight as we think about the possibility of exploring an audio synchrony prototype next quarter and how immersive experiences can enhance how music interacts with movement.

    1. “To make live dance captivating, dancers have to move with the music as the dancers all just of the sudden got on the stage and on the same wavelength and decided to do it this way. It should look improvisational and affected by the music. It is like making the music 3D.” - Campbell Miller, Oscillations dancer

    2. “Music is what moves [dancers]. It is what motivates our music. So when you take the music away, we are just carving shapes in space, so the majority of the people here have a tie in to music. It is not just about the movement itself.”

    3. Music takes an experience “from a practice to a performance” - Rafah Ali, a Northwestern University student

    4. “I like the music. If the music is good, then i think it gets me more wrapped up in it.” - Katherine Thomas, third grade teacher and former dancer

  4. Audience members find the unpredictable nature of a live performance engaging and a distinction from 2D experiences. Many audience members noted the raw nature of a performance and the chance that anything could happen is a key part of what makes a live performance engaging. Almost universally, audience mentioned that 2D video experiences can be edited, and it doesn’t feel as spontaneous as live experiences. A performer noted that while they rehearse a performance constantly, it is imperative performers make rehearsed feel as improvisational as possible to draw audiences in. This insight offers an opportunity for machine learning and immersive movement arts experiences since the performance changing on the spot in reaction to an audience members emotions may fulfill that need for spontaneity.

    1. “Live is more palpable and mistakes can be made. It is edgier and more raw since television can be edited. Flaws make the performance what it is “ - Lois Kim, audience member at Tether event

    2. “You are seeing an artist at their most vulnerable moment.” - Conor McKenzie, Oscillations dancer

  5. Live experiences give audience members the opportunity to choose their own focus rather than rely on what the camera can show them. Many audience members noted what they appreciate in a live performance is that they can choose what they would like to focus on and can take in a performance depending what element captures them most. Alternatively, in a 2D recorded performance, an audience member has to rely on what the producers and the camera show them, so their eyes are beholden to them. Some of our interviewees mentioned what they would find the most captivating about a virtual reality experience is if they were able to watch a performance from many angles such as birds-eye and being in the middle of the performance. It is important to note both of these perspectives are outside the scope of a traditional dance performance. This insight highlights the opportunity for immersive performing arts experiences to give audiences a perspective they wouldn’t normally have access to. It also highlights a problem area since other audience members mentioned they would have a “Fear of Missing Out” experience if they couldn’t take in the whole performance in 360. They would have to constantly turn their head to feel they weren’t missing a cool element of the performance.

    1. Jack wants control of focus and where he can move. He wants choice in perspective, which he has during a live performance. - Jack MacLaughlin, audience member at Tether event

    2. “VR has no focal point. It needs to empower you to engage in the performance and focus.” - Rafah Ali, a Northwestern University graduate student

Next Steps

With these five insights identified, the Oscillations team next quarter will decide which one (or two) are important to keep investigating and are essential to understand for immersive performing arts experiences.

Once we identify these insights, we are going to develop another research plan and conduct more intensive user interviews with standardized unpack guides that will help us dissect the insights further and see if there is an opportunity area Oscillations can fill with their product. This dissection will follow a formal design thinking process.

Our research this quarter was primarily qualitative. Next quarter, we are hopeful to use these qualitative finding to help our team develop a quantitative survey that can be offered to audience members experiencing live and virtual reality experiences. We feel a strong balance of qualitative and quantitative research will allow us to give Oscillations robust insights that are applicable to developing their product.

We have hypothesized that for virtual reality to be the most engaging, it will have to move beyond simply replicating a live performance or 2D video experience. It will have to exist as its own medium and fill a hole that audience members are feeling about how they can currently experience the movement arts. From our initial research, we hypothesize that virtual reality will have to offer audience members super-real experiences that aren’t possible in live or 2D performances. Yet, this is hypothesis we have to further investigate before making any conclusions.

With this all said, we will have to confer with our new teammates in April, so we can include their thoughts in this process and go forward from there. Yet, in all, we feel the winter quarter gave the Oscillations team a strong foundation of audience experience knowledge that will help identify opportunity areas and key metrics to measure in the future.

Audiences and performers are separated in time but not in space.

About the project

OscillationsImmersive Virtual Experiences in the Performing Arts

Advancements in neuroscience and immersive technologies offer mechanisms for engineering an entirely new mode of performance art one that engages audiences to unprecedented degree. Using the latest VR production techniques, students used motion capture and machine learning to teach a computer to improvise a performance, creating an engaging VR experience.

About the authors

Ben Singer

Device Lab Fellow

Harriet White

Joo-Young Lee

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