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.

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∗ 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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The ‘Joy’ Graph – Measuring Feelings on the Fly

Does your morning commute spark joy?

Probably not, particularly if you exit the subway and face a blank wall. Add some artwork to that facade, however, and your internal joy meter will likely jump!

Check out the existing conditions in Davis Square, Somerville MA.


The picture is of the view people see when exiting the Somerville subway. The attached graph was generated by a biometric tool—facial expression analysis software—which instantly records how facial muscles move in a 14-second interval. The software produces real-time ‘joy graphs’ tracking the facial movements of people viewing the picture, specifically when people smile. In this case, the flat blue line in the graph suggests that at this stage of the commute, not that many people feel happy in Somerville.

Now check out what happens when we add a Matisse-like mural to the same facade.


We get a lot more bounce in the ‘joy’ graph, it seems denser, telling us people smiled more and really do like it when Matisse greets them instead of blank concrete.

Welcome to the ‘Age of Biology,’ as the 21st Century is now labelled (by the OECD) We live in a remarkable time where biometric tools can reliably register our shifting emotional states and when the collection of real-time data on how architecture makes people feel and behave is feasible.  Talk about a paradigm shift.  In today’s world if you don’t talk about human emotions and behaviors engendered by design, you are passé.  20th Century. Old-fashioned! (Measuring human behavior is where it’s at now.)

These images come from our recent biometric pilot study where we asked 24 volunteers to view photos of Somerville, MA, to learn which cityscapes people liked most. We focused on ‘joy’ over other emotions including sadness, surprise, anger, fear, disgust, and contempt, hypothesizing that joy correlates best with what people would describe as a happy experience in the urban environment.

Below are other images from our pilot-study.


The photo above shows existing conditions in Somerville’s Davis Square which people didn’t seem happy about, judging from the relatively flat joy graph. The photo below includes a bouncier joy graph when we add more Matisse-like art to the mix.


The larger blue areas on the ‘joy’ graph suggest that people felt more ‘joy’ taking in the colorful mural on the central building than with existing conditions, the blank gray wall.

Of course, to nail these findings we need to do further testing (with more volunteers and added biometric tools). Nevertheless, we think the trend is clear, and planners and architects, community leaders and developers should take note: people don’t like blank walls. They make folks unhappy. Design and rehabilitate accordingly.

And know that, with the arsenal of biometric tools expanding, we can now reliably figure out how to bring more ‘joy’ back to our cities—maybe even the morning commute.


Special thanks to Boston office of iMotions (imotions.com) for providing access to the state-of-the-art software and biometric study expertise.

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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.

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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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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?

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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 develop 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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