Inside Look at Dr. Poppy Crum’s CEDIA Expo 2021 Keynote

From analyzing Tolstoy to gauging audience reaction based on CO2 levels, Dolby’s in-house neuroscientist thinks a lot about the precise delivery of a creator’s intent in her CEDIA Expo 2021 keynote.

Ed Wenck

In Leo Tolstoy’s expansive essay “What Is Art?”, the novelist makes the case for expanding what had been the traditional definition – by quite a bit.

We are accustomed to understand art to be only what we hear and see in theaters, concerts, and exhibitions, together with buildings, statues, poems, novels … But all this is but the smallest part of the art by which we communicate with each other in life. All human life is filled with works of art of every kind — from cradlesong, jest, mimicry, the ornamentation of houses, dress, and utensils, up to church services, buildings, monuments, and triumphal processions. It is all artistic activity.

It’s a work that Poppy Crum, chief scientist at Dolby Laboratories and keynote speaker at CEDIA Expo 2021, has shared with her team at Dolby.

“You don’t normally think of Leo Tolstoy as writing essays, but it’s an interesting one because in it the way he defines art is very dependent on how the user experiences it,” says Crum. “And it creates this interesting dialogue — if you’re focused in thinking about creative intent and what it means to actually support and translate creative intent and the ideas, well, that translation, that parity has to exist from intent of the creator to the user.”

“To evoke in oneself a feeling one has once experienced, and having evoked it in oneself, then by means of movements, lines, colors, sounds, or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling that others may experience the same feeling — this is the activity of art,” writes Tolstoy, and this informs something that really excites Crum: Using technology to ensure that a creator’s intent is transmitted to the end user without a glitch, as seamlessly and precisely as possible.

“The thing that’s really changed is that the philosophical musing from Leo Tolstoy is now a reality that we can understand, we can know what someone’s actually experiencing on the other side,” Crum explains. “That’s the way the world has changed, the question is what do we do with that? We get to reevaluate areas where creative intent might not be achieved, things like in a headphone where we have to introduce new solutions that technologically weren’t possible before but are today to help us really elevate the experience that we can provide with regard to creative intent.”

Closing the Loop

It’s these kinds of questions that connect a neuroscientist working at Dolby with a Russian writer who died before the invention of the “talking motion picture.” Once you’ve decided you want to share a feeling – encased in narrative or not – and create a fantastic piece of music or a deeply emotive movie, it’s up to Crum and company to find ways to help perfectly deliver that vision to an audience. It’s also a driving force for those perfecting the various ways content gets delivered – keeping the lofty aspirations of a sublime experience at the forefront is key when Crum and her team are trying to figure out how human brains process light and sound in the patterns we call “art.”

Crum’s Expo keynote is titled “The Future of Storytelling.” Meaning? “Well, there’s a lot of different ways that storytelling can change. Let’s use the Tolstoy example: What does it mean to close the loop when you have creative intent? It’s not just bits and pixels. If part of the metadata is capturing the sentiment of a storyline and somewhere in that metadata we know what the intent of an experience is, what do we do in that environment that can modulate the experience someone’s having? How can we leverage that in the transmission of the creative intent?”

Curious to see the CO2 tracking technology in action? Check out a live demonstration during Dr. Crum’s 2018 TED Talk.

Confused? Crum clears it up: “We worked with a director in our cinema and we had tubes on the ground. Those tubes are capturing carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide’s heavier than air so you can pick up on the real time density of CO2 in the environment. CO2 correlates with changes in emotion and sentiment and feeling of the audience.”

By understanding the correlation between the levels of C02 an audience is expelling and various emotional states – fear, panic, relief – Crum’s work can help a director actually measure the real-time impact of the choices the creator’s made.

The film in question for the CO2 experiment was a rock-climbing documentary about a daredevil named Alex Honnold. “You can look at the traces of CO2 and know where Alex summits, where he abandons his climb, you can see the love story, the interaction happening with his partner in that film, you can identify where he injures himself, just in the traces of CO2. When you start thinking about that, that’s the creative intent, the story, the journey that the creator wants that audience to go on and it’s in the volume, in the chemical composition of the air in that space being shared, being exchanged.”

The Personal Experience

And once we have all the available data – and we’re talking gathering stats well beyond CO2 fluctuations – what can the content creator do with that info? “Those type of signatures we give off are measurable, but they can also be leveraged in different ways; it’s the dynamics of these different signatures that are part of how we interact with our content. So we start thinking, ‘How should my content react? How is that part of my experience?’

“How do you create a more intimate personalized experience for an individual in a shared environment, in a home theater, in a cinema with audio that is unique to me and in a space where you have a number of people consuming the same content — but in fact need to be consuming slightly different content? Because to have translation of creative intent, we’re all very unique. For example: If I can’t hear dialogue, I’m not experiencing the creative intent of the content solely by trying to read captions, I’m disconnected from it.”

And this will ultimately lead to those “new ways of storytelling” that Crum will dive into during that Expo keynote: “How we bridge that to the individual and shared experiences, how we interact with the human body in a much closer, more intimate way within ambient experiences that are really powerful – experiences you can’t recreate over a pair of headphones — is an important part of what that future looks like. You get new tools, you get new ways of creating content, of interacting with it, of interacting with a human.”

But what will really push the tech to its full potential in this regard isn’t the team at Dolby Labs, according to Crum. “I think whenever we introduce new technologies, it’s a more conservative introduction of that technology and then artists really push the limits of it and figure out new ways to use it that influence the evolution of those technologies in the industry.”


Ed Wenck is the content director at CEDIA.

Poppy Crum will deliver the CEDIA Expo Keynote “New Ways of Storytelling” on August 31, 2021, at 5 p.m. Register here: https://cediaexpo.com/