Conference Quick Cuts

SXSW Film + Interactive

Fri., March 16, 2012

Rewards! Emotions! Design With the Brain in Mind

Saturday, March 10, Austin Convention Center

This panel, like so many others presented during South by Southwest Interactive, is about maximizing. This one in particular, explained by the tag team of neuroscience researchers Carlos Velasco and Alejandro Salgado, was about maximizing the precise use of "core evolutionary emotions" that drive compelling character development and narrative in film or games.

If you're a successful storyteller or even just a longtime and considerate consumer of other people's tales, you know pretty much what works, what sort of gambits to use in hooking an audience and forcing (albeit subtly, if you do it right) appreciation for the creation. Velasco and Salgado of the company Neurosketch are all about removing that "pretty much," about using controlled scientific research to pinpoint exactly the sort of details and surroundings that are most effective on the physical brain and consequently the person. You know: You show a subject a series of film clips and track where the eyes dart and linger; you note, with functional magnetic resonance imaging technology and so on, what portions of the old gray matter get excited by which images or combinations of effects; and you follow this up with research outside the lab, making sure you have an anecdotal, crowdsourced perspective from which to further winnow out the variables. Well, except where variables themselves would impart a positive influence on the narrative/character/whatever you're using to engage the audience.

Velasco and Salgado, trading spokesman duties, using projected slides and animations and film to enhance their speech, building the talk with a few of the methods – "hedonic forecasting" – they represented, did a fine job of explicating their work and pimping its advantages. The two of them fielded frequent audience questions, gave substantial replies, and were not afraid to say, when necessary, "Well, we don't know yet, that's part of what we're looking into" instead of offering vaporous bullshit. Well done, boys.

But, still: What all this research boils down to ... what the presentation's subject and the presentation itself gave evidence to ... what all this highly scientific brain-based jiggery-pokery serves to validate is merely what one of They Might Be Giants' two Johns said more than a decade ago: "If you do interesting things, people will be interested."
Wayne Alan Brenner

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