Eye-Tracking Cincinnati on-the-fly

Recently in Cincinnati to speak at an AIA Vision event for young architects, I had the opportunity to eye track a local street scene. I shared my findings with the area residents later that evening. Here they are:Screen Shot 2017-05-31 at 4.11.16 PM

The photo directly above, at left, I took with my iPhone walking down Walnut Street, passing the Contemporary Arts Center, a relatively-new art museum by Zaha Hadid (2003), and then, further down the street (top photo, left), turn of the century beaux-arts office buildings. Back at the hotel I uploaded the images to eye-tracking software (3m.VAS.com) on my laptop∗ – and learned about what I’d expected: people ignore the new public art museum.


Photos in center of slide give us a clue. They show where people most likely look in ‘pre-attentive’ processing (or without conscious attention), tracking the path their eyes follow the first 3-5 seconds they take in the scene, which is before their conscious mind can get into the act. We see that viewers first focus down the street, effectively looking past the art center – fixating instead on the older buildings down the block (fixation 1, 2). They then look at the brightly colored mural at building in front of the museum, (fixation 3) and finally they settle on an orange hazard cone (fixation 4) on the sidewalk.

The regions outlined in yellow further delineate the areas that receive most attention and the probabilities they’ll get it; with areas not outlined of little or no interest at all.

Screen Shot 2017-06-05 at 2.48.47 PMAccording to this analysis, there’s a 66% probability that people will look down the street, past the new art building; 64% chance they’ll look at the bright colors on the building opposite the art center – and 55% they’ll take in the sidewalk cone.  The probability they’ll ignore the art museum itself is close to 100% since most of it’s in grey, falling outside the outlined regions.

What’s the problem here?

The architecture of Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center simply doesn’t fit what the human brain needs or expects to see to move forward; the eye won’t and can’t find a place to fixate on the blank building  – so our brain makes us look elsewhere for a place where it can. No surprise it finds fixation points on the older office buildings down the block; here, as the top row of photos in the slide above indicate, the eye easily attaches to the contrasting patterns of the punched windows and other architectural details. So that’s where our brain unconsciously directs our attention and moves us to go.

Perhaps sensing a need to bolster public appeal, Cincinnati’s Contemporary Art Center added Metrobot, a 27-foot tall robot by artist Nam June Paik, in permanent installation by its front door in 2014, a decade after opening.

And as the ‘heat map’ below indicates, glowing brighest where people look most, the sculpture does indeed grab attention, successfully directing viewers to look towards at least a part of the building their brains would otherwise have them ignore entirely.

Screen Shot 2017-06-05 at 4.02.03 PM

Screen Shot 2017-05-31 at 5.14.54 PM










∗ 3M VAS software can also be run directly as an app on your phone.

– by Ann with ‘seed’ idea from Janice


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