Cirque du Soleil Spotlights Visual Data to Better Understand Audience

It has modernised a traditional performing act, turning it into an international phenomenon. Now, like other traditional retail and business brands, it wants to extensively tap technology as well as data to make more informed decisions about its product delivery and to better engage its audience.

Cirque du Soleil spent the last three decades transforming a small show that begun in rural Quebec to one that has put up 40 productions in 60 countries, drawing 11 million spectators annually. It is supported by 1,350 artists and currently runs 22 shows worldwide, including both resident and touring shows, such as its KURIOS production, which will begin its one-month run in Singapore next month.

While it belongs to an industry that is highly niche and has few competitors, Cirque du Soleil faces the same challenges as other retail and business brands that have significantly expanded its service delivery and customer base.

Having grown to such a large company and one that depends heavily on its talent, it can be challenging to ensure consistent performance delivery, explained Marc Gagnon, Cirque du Soleil’s director of innovation and enterprise architecture. He noted that there sometimes were variants in the show lineups since performers might need to be replaced or the number of artists in some skits would need to be reduced on some shows.

To maintain the quality of a show over the lifetime of its production, so audience experience is consistent, Gagnon said it was important to be able to measure spectators’ reaction. It also was critical to ascertain the level of difficulty of a show and how easy it would be to replace a performer, he said in an interview with DTCDaily.

Cirque du Soleil then turned to the use of cameras and motion tracking, so it could monitor the performers and compare the quality of skits. Data insights generated from this translated to better training for its performers, reduced injuries, and improved experience for its employees, he said.

The company works with German technology vendor SAP to deploy the majority of its IT endeavours, ranging from finance, procurement, supply chain, to manufacturing, and show performance.

Cirque du Soleil’s Marc Gagnon (left) and SAP’s Claus Andresen

Claus Andresen, SAP’s Southeast Asia president and managing director, said it also had worked with a football team in Munich to capture the movements of its players. The objective here was to determine when players were likely to get injured, how they moved on the field, what coaches could use to optimise training, and how training could be tailored for each individual player.

This ensured players received care that catered to their personal needs and, therefore, helped reduce the likelihood of injuries, Andresen said, adding that this, ultimately, would improve the performance of the team and translate to better enjoyment for their fans.

SAP also is helping Cirque du Soleil pilot the use of cameras in the arena to capture and analyse audience reactions in real-time as a performance is playing out.

Just like retail brands that monitor footfall traffic and in-store browsing patterns to improve their store layout and customer experience, the performing arts company has turned to visually studying its own audience to determine the quality and appeal of its product.

Gagnon said: “For years, we’ve been using surveys and response rate not only has been low, we can only capture what they experience and gauge their response at the end of a show. We’re now exploring cameras as they’re not as intrusive.”

He explained that the emotions of spectators could be captured and assessed throughout the timeline of the show. Through the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and data analysis, he said the company aimed to use these insights to improve future shows or tweak certain segments of a performance.

“We’re prototyping real-time facial response to our shows as they’re happening. The surveys will never tell you that,” he noted. “Also, we have data scientists analysing based on geographical locations [as] we believe [audience behaviour] can differ from Asia to Europe, for instance.”

“It’s the classic [need] to understand our audience better so we can do marketing with more precision and, hopefully, better conversions rate. We want to make data-driven decisions.”

Gagnon said there still were some issues that needed to be addressed, such as capturing facial emotions while stage lights were focused on the performers–rather than the audience–as well as studying potential bias of AI platforms.

Cirque du Soleil also had been using motion-tracking technology to enhance its costumes through “near real-time” projection mapping, where the coupling of physical and virtual objects would take place at 16 milliseconds. This enabled images to be projected directly on the human body, so a performer’s costume could be changed and used as a canvas for expression, he said.

This application of image mapping is similar to how some retail brands have turned to augmented and virtual reality to enable online shoppers to gauge how a piece of jewelry may look on their hand.

Gagnon stressed the need for technology, when applied, to be seamless and non-intrusive for both the performers and audiences.

Andresen concurred, noting: “Many of the use cases are about using data, capturing it quickly, and simulating what would be a potential outcome. It’s about finding opportunities to capture an engagement with a customer and helping our clients put the technology together for an outcome that benefits them.”