Saturday, August 22, 2015

Choosing movies to watch on an airplane? Compensate for context

For some people, an airplane is the perfect place to catch up on their movies-to-watch list. For these people there is no difference between sitting on a plane and sitting on the couch in their living room.

If you are one of these people, you are lucky.

If not, then you make want to take a few moments to think about what kind of a movie you should be watching on an airplane.

These are our two main insights on how you should make this choice:
  • Watch a movie that uses a lot of closeups (or relatively little visual detail), is well lit, and moves relatively slowly so that you can enjoy it on a small screen.
  • Watch something that is going to engage you. Remember that the environment and the disruptions on an airplane might affect your ability to focus, and, in this way disrupt your ability to experience an empathetic relationship with the characters. In other words, unless the plot and characters really draw you in movie might not "work" in the way it is intended.
For an accessible introduction to how movies manipulate your brain see the Wired series on Cinema Science article:
At the perceptual level your brain needs to be able exercise its ability to "stitch things together to make sense". It's plausible that this "stitching" also has to be able to take place at an emotional level. Certain kinds of distractors can be expected to simply get in the way of that happening as effectively as it is meant to.

When we began to study what kinds of movies that people watch on planes we used these two insights as a point of departure. We started with these insights after having made some informal observations about the nature of distractors on an airplane, which are illustrated by this video.

At the end of the video, we formulate the following initial list of distractors, which impact what you might want to watch on an airplane.
  1. Engine noise
  2. Announcements
  3. Turbulence
  4. Small screen 
  5. Glare on screen
  6. Inflight service
  7. Fellow travelers
  8. Kid next to you
In short, when choosing a movies to view on the airplane, you should pick a movie that can "compensate for context", meaning that you can enjoy it despite the distractors inherent in the situation aboard an airplane.

We are looking to expand this list of distractors as our research moves forward.

Our ultimate goal (still a long way off) is to build a recommender system that can automatically "watch" movies for you ahead of time. The system would be able to suggest movies that you would like, but above and beyond that the suggested movies would be prescreened to be suitable for watching on an airplane. Such a system would help you to quickly decide what to turn on at 30,000 feet, without worrying that half way through you will realize that it might not have been a good choice.

Since we started this research, I have been paying more an more attention to the experiences that I have with movies on a plane. Here are two.

  • On a recent domestic flight: The woman next to me started to watch Penny Dreadful. She turned it off about ten minutes in. I then also tried to watch it. I really like the show, but it's meant to be dark, gory, and mysterious. These three qualities turned into poorly visible, disconcerting, and confusing at 10,000 feet. This is what I am trying to capture in the video above.
  • On a recent Transatlantic flight: The man sitting next to me turned on his monitor, and turned on The Color Purple as if it were on his watch list. It's probably on most people's movies-to-watch list, so this seems like a safe choice. However, I was trying to review a paper, and was subject to over two hours of unavoidable glimpses of violence on a screen a few feet from my own. It's the emotional impact of these scenes that make it a great movie. By the same token, you might not want to be watching it on a plane, especially if you are not going to experience the entire emotional arc. (The movie should be watched with full focus, from beginning to end.)

Until now, the work on context-aware movie recommender systems that I have encountered has recommended movies for situations that are part of what is considered to be "normal" daily life, e.g.,  watching movies during the week vs. on the weekend, watching movies with your kids vs. with your spouse. We need more recommender system work that will allow us to get to movies that are suitable for less ideal, more unpleasant, perhaps less frequent situations.  Why waste a good movie by watching it in the wrong context? And why suffer anymore than necessary while on an airplane?

The work is being carried out within the context of the MediaEval Benchmarking Initiative for Multimedia Evaluation, see Context of Experience 2015. It owes a lot to the CrowdRec project, which pushes us to understand how we can make recommenders better by asking people explicitly to contribute their input.