Why Eye Track Architecture? To See How ‘Fixations Drive Exploration’

What happens when you eye track architecture? The City of Somerville provided us with some views of Davis Square to find out. Here’s one picture of an existing building there surrounded by parking.

20130629 Davis Square 5984 (1).jpg

And here’s the same image we photoshopped with a colorful Matisse-like print:


We eye tracked both of these images in a pilot-study in January at GeneticsofDesign.com to better understand how people take-in their surroundings.  We learned quickly that people ignore blank facades and immediately focus on areas of high contast and detail. See heat map below, which glows reddest where people looked most, often without conscious control – they simply don’t realize what their brains are making them do:Screen Shot 2017-03-09 at 11.27.08 AM

Notice how in image with the blank facade, people scan around the parking lot a lot and also put their energy to checking out the cars and buidings down the side street. With the Matisse-image affixed to the building, however, everything shifts and people experience the street in a completely different fashion – less randomly, spending far less time looking down the side street.Screen Shot 2017-03-09 at 11.27.40 AM

Here are the heat map images side by side. We asked two groups of university students (one at Tufts, the other at Northeastern) last month which place they’d prefer to spend time; where would they feel safer hanging out ? Hands down both sets of students voted to stand in front of the mural than the building with the blank facade. In each instance, the students made the decision quickly, unanimously, in under a minute.Screen Shot 2017-03-08 at 11.12.12 AMHow did this happen?  “Fixations drive exploration,” explains a cognitive scientist we know. The eye is hardwired to focus on specific objects in the environment; if it finds none the brain goes on alert – until it finds something to attach to. The mural provides a place for instant ‘pre-attentive’ (or unconscious) eye attachment, it fits what our brain wants to see and needs to see to emotionally regulate and move forward.  The students immediately picked up on it; so did the 24 people in our pilot-study. It all makes sense, of couse, once you remember that as an evolutionary artifact, we see the world Mother Nature wants us to see in the way she wants us to see it – and she is no libertarian, but a control freak.


Thanks to Janice M. Ward, Alex Purdy, for their exemplary teamwork running this study; and to the iMotions team for their help and game-changing software, as well as the City of Somerville for providing us with the sunny urban images in the middle of winter.

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1 Response to Why Eye Track Architecture? To See How ‘Fixations Drive Exploration’

  1. Pingback: Building Places Nobody Wants to Be | The Genetics of Design

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