Eye Tracking Picasso: How We See Art

Eye tracking, often used in web and ad design today, can help us see how we see art. Here’s Femme a la Fenetre, (Woman at a Window) a portrait Picasso painted of his mistress Marie-Thérèse in 1936. (It sold at auction for $17.2 million in 2012.) We set up an image of the painting on a computer monitor equipped with eye tracker to better understand what makes her so compelling.


And found out fast: her eyes. TTFF stands for Time To First Fixation. The image below show how all of our 33 volunteers took less than 1.5 seconds on average to focus in on her eyes and nose area, spending 3.4 seconds there in a 15-second testing interval. Slightly more than three-quarters of the participants then went on to check out the date of the painting just above her head: 13 avril xxxvi (13 April ’36) – but they spent much less time there (0.6s).


And what would happen if we removed an eye? Courtesy of Photoshop, we did, with the following result:


People didn’t spend as much time looking at her eyes or face!  Their brains simply wouldn’t let them. They took a bit longer to find the face (TTFF=1.6 seconds, versus TTFF=1.5 seconds in the first image) and spent less time looking at the eye and nose area, 2.7 seconds versus 3.4 seconds in the original image. With one less eye, almost half the test subjects (12 out of 30) then went on to focus on Marie-Thérèse’s left hand, which was ignored in the first painting.

The shadow images below, another way to view aggregate data, again show how people focus attention on the central facial area more sharply and exclusively when it has two eyes, while their attention disperses broadly over the face to the hands when only one eye is ‘in the picture’.

Eyes matter in art and in evolution. We see here how much of the way we look at art is not under conscious control, but inherited from billions of years of earlier life on the planet. Animals that didn’t pick up on eyes in their midst paid a price – demise; those that did survived – our ancestors became fast ‘face-i-tects’ and’eye-i-tects’. Picasso seems to have picked up on it.

“L’art est un mensonge qui nous fait comprendre la vérité,” (Art is a lie that tells us the truth), he once said.

Indeed.  screen-shot-2017-02-24-at-9-42-37-pm

all photos © annsussman.com

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Park Benches Where No One Sits

Lately I’ve noticed oddly-placed park benches in new developments and reclaimed spaces. Would you want to sit on these brand new benches outside a CVS in MetroWest Boston?Screen Shot 2017-02-17 at 1.34.02 PM.PNG

Or how about these seats—offering a fine, unobscured view of car doors, tail lights and parking lots?

Screen Shot 2017-02-17 at 1.35.18 PM.PNG

Park benches have come full circle—from meeting places to superfluous relics and back, apparently. Once an American mainstay, the park bench once served as gathering spot, breathing space and room with a view—the perfect place to bask in the sun, find relief in the shade, and celebrate community.

Car culture, suburban sprawl, and mall meet-ups changed all that. Some park benches were even designed for discomfort to curb public loitering.

Now benches are back. Sort of. Urban designers realize the importance of public benches for community gathering,  socialization, health and wellness, but the old “form follows function” rule seems not to hold. Without concern for purpose and placement, the park bench becomes a construction checklist item that fails to serve its audience. Rather than support us, these benches turn their backs on our needs.


If the goal of the bench is socialization, safety, scenery and shelter, why do these benches face busy streets, blank walls and parking lots? Let’s promote community and our human need for connection, not devalue it. Stay tuned, pretty soon it seems we’ll need a “Bench Bill of Rights.”

Story and photos: Janice M. Ward

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Building Relationships


This cartoon by Hilary Price really gets it:

We’re built for relationships, so much so that we love looking for and at people all the time and extend this trait to looking at inanimate things that resemble us. We are a social species, after all, hardwired from infancy to seek out others, built to be in relationships of one sort or another all the time. As members of a gregarious group, our survival as individuals depends on it. Like the elephants above, gazing admiringly at teapots with trunk-like spouts, we love taking each other in to such an extent we like making things – from cartoons to objects, art and architecture – that look like us, too. (A previous post on the faces we unconsciously see in Palladio’s Villa Rotunda is here.)

But where does the predispositon come from? Apparently, from some time ago. Check out the Makapansgat Pebble, below:                                                                                                    screen-shot-2016-11-30-at-10-36-27-pmUncovered in South Africa almost a century ago, and now in a museum there, the pebble is considered – at 3 million years old – the world’s oldest example of ‘symbolic thinking’, the ability to think in images and symbols which children acquire in pre-school. This is the trait needed to create art and language, critical for the development of human society.

But it also suggests something more: how deeply our hominid ancestors needed to see each other – and something else significant, too:

How our evolution sets limits for our architecture today.

If we want to create buildings that last and places people want to be, and feel at their best around, the structures need to suggest people too, or put another way, be easy to anthropomorphize. Otherwise our brain won’t easily build a relationship with them. It can’t. Mother Nature, inherently conservative, has not wired us to let that happen.


Here’s a slide from a recent talk I gave on how new findings in neuroscience can inform green design. The drawings are by Canadian artist, Ryan Dodgson, a graduate of the Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto. I met him a few years ago at a Toronto art fair and after looking at his hand-drawn ‘edi-faces’ asked him whether he’d ever studied neuroscience.  “No,” he said.

Clearly, he didn’t need to. He’d already intuited it.


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Eye Tracking the ‘Villa’: A First Step toward Understanding How We Experience Architecture

Villa Rotunda by architect Palladio is, arguably, one of the most significant buildings in architectural history. Designed in the late 16th-century as a country house in Vicenza, Italy for a retiring  cleric, its captivating elevations would go on to provide the prototype for countless other buildings worldwide including The White House in the U.S.

But how do people actually look at the building? Here’s a gaze path video showing one person taking it in. When you click the arrow, the moving dots and lines reflect what drew the subject’s gaze when she looked at the picture using eye-tracking technology.

The yellow circles show fixations where the eyes stick to the image, and the lines show the saccades,  the movement the eyes make—often under subconscious control—as they dart from one part of a scene to another. Here’s a gaze path made by another person in our study:

You can see how each participant looks at the world differently—and you can also see how the Villa provides our brain with plenty of eye candy to focus on.

But what do people really focus on?

In the spotlight image below, created by aggregating the gaze paths of 33 viewers, we see that—despite individual differences—people tend to focus on the same things; in this case, the center of the portico and all the statuary atop it. In spotlights, the image glows whitest where people look most, fading to darker grey and black where they look least. We see here how people are hardwired—with no conscious control, irrespective of age or culture—to check out other people, even when perceiving stone versions of themselves, even when these are spread out all around a building.


And interestingly, the focus on the statuary seems to intensify when viewers looked at a Photoshopped version of The Rotunda, with windows removed. Notice how the area around the statues seems to glow a bit brighter. For a social species like us, blank walls are of no interest. Our brain, knowing us well, saves its energy for focusing on what we love most: ourselves.


One preliminary conclusion about architecture? Buildings that last feed needs that we may not realize we have; in this case, our perennial one to be seen and reflected.

all photos videos © AnnSussman

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‘Seeing’ How We Actually Look at Buildings at ABX 2016

Screen Shot 2016-11-15 at 10.19.43 AM.PNGInterested in ‘seeing’ your brain subconsiously take in the buildings around you? Then come to our talk Thursday, November 17th, at 1 PM at the Boston Convention Center, part of the ABX 2016 Conference.

We’ll be presenting eye-tracking research from our recent pilot-studies looking at buildings in Boston and NYC. This includes showing ‘gaze paths,’ or the trail you eyes make as they take in an image and are largely under subconscious control. For instance, the photos below show how two people look at a NYC library: as it stands today, at right, and with windows photoshopped out, at left.  Notice anything unusual?

screen-shot-2016-11-14-at-8-51-08-pmYes, we’ll demonstrate how your brain is not oriented to take in blank facades; indeed, how it barely lets you look at them and we’ll talk about why. (It’s not critical for survival the way areas of high contrast are.) We’ll observe the same phenomenon looking at a photo of the Dunker Church at the Antietam Battlefield at left below, and with windows removed, at right.  This is a ‘shadow’ image, designed to distill where an aggregrate group of testers look most when given 15 seconds to take in a picture. Notice how they barely ‘fixate’ on the building at all once windows are out?screen-shot-2016-11-15-at-10-21-21-amWe’ll also talk about a recurring theme at geneticsofdesign.com, how important it is for people to see faces and how we do this – consciously and unconsciously – all the time.  Check out the ‘shadow’ study below…showing how unconciously our brain will  observe a face-like image in the carriage house within 15 seconds – whether we want to or not!

screen-shot-2016-11-14-at-8-51-56-pmAnd just as importantly we’ll check out how our brain takes in ‘actual’ faces. Here’s a Picasso portrait of wife, ‘Marie-Therese’.

Note the upside down triangle; people really focus on eye, nose, mouth region. And it doesn’t change much when we look at another animal either! The ‘heatmap’ on the cat below glows reddest where people look most, fading to yellow then green, in areas of less interest, and showing no overlay color at all on areas people ignore.  It’s astonishing how similarly we take in a multi-million dollar portrait by Picasso and the kitty photo on a $1-notebook selling at Staples. But then again, maybe not. With biometric tools, like eye trackers, we can start to see how our brain architecture sets limits for our art and built architecture; Mother Nature, like any other design virtuoso, simply wouldn’t have it any other way.screen-shot-2016-11-15-at-10-25-30-am


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We See Like an Animal…and that Matters

Eye-tracking tools can help us see how we look out on the world as an animal – and it can help us understand why some buildings catch our attention while others don’t and never will. Check out the photos below: at left, an old carriage house on school grounds in Cambridge, MA, and at right, relatively new construction, the Queens Library at Glen Oaks, New York City. Below these top photos are eye-tracked versions of the same:














You can probably guess which building really draws us in: the one on the left, and eye tracking can help us understand why. Commonly used in web and ad design, these biometric tools follow how our eyes move under subconscious control. The software used here, an emulation package from 3M, called Visual Attention Software, (vas.3m.com) creates heat maps to show ‘pre-attentive processing’ where our eyes go in the first 3 – 5 seconds they see something, before our conscious mind can get into the act. The heat maps glow reddest where our eyes go first and frequently, fading to yellow, green, then blue where they go subsequently and least. When black, the area is simply not of interest, from the brain’s perspective.

Looking at the carriage house, then, we ‘see’ that our eyes home in on the round windows and barn door and building center; in contrast, taking in the new library, we learn that our eyes effectively ignore it – save for two benches in front and some areas of high visual contrast around the edge. Nothing in the library facade fits what our brain – which evolved in the savanna several million years ago and remains designed for – is built to expect or, in its view, needs to see for survival.

And there’s more: the carriage house ‘heat map’ suggests a face, which is tremendously significant. Our brain evolved to anthropomorphize things, a trait which turns out to carry a survival advantage.  From our brain’s perspective, the carriage house appears to be looking at us, and in so doing, orients us, and puts us at ease. Remember, for human beings, the most social species on the planet, no other visual pattern regulates us more from infancy on than the primal one: the face.

No surprise then, that many of the most consequential buildings in the history of architecture, do the same. Below is the Villa Rotunda, in Vicenza, Italy, by Palladio, a 16th century construction that today is a World Heritage Site maintained by UNESCO. Seeing its face, we now know why centuries from now it will remain significant.

screen-shot-2016-09-09-at-3-53-11-pmall photos copyright Ann Sussman
? : email annsmail4@gmail.com

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BSA Placemaking Network: Sept 26 Talk

The Biometrics of Placemaking: Why We Need Buildings to ‘See’ Us

When:September 26, 2016 | 6:00 PM – 8:00 PM
Where: Boston Society of Architects (BSA) Space, 290 Congress St, Suite 200, Boston
This event is free w refreshments and open to all


Three speakers, Ann Sussman AIA, co-author of Cognitive Architecture together with Janice Ward, of Genetics of Design.com and Vernon Woodworth FAIA, of Urban Determination, will explore how subconscious behaviors govern our experience in the built environment and how ‘seeing’ these hidden predispositions with biometric tools can help us understand what makes places successful. They will review eye-tracked images from their June cover story in Planning Magazine. They will also discuss our human-centric perception and how seeing and being seen by others is so important that we are happiest and most at ease around objects that seem to ‘see’ us too.

For those who qualify, 2 LU/HSW are available

Image Credit: Ann Sussman AIA, IHCD

To learn more about the Placemaking Network, visit architects.org/committees/placemaking-network

Click Register to attend.


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