Participate in a Biometric Study in Boston – November 5, 2020!

Participate in this important study promoting the research we do at working with the non-profit; it’s a great chance to try out eye-tracking glasses and really see what your body’s doing subliminally as you walk down a street! Contact Vernon above for more info and to sign up. We still have a few spots left – and this week the weather’s supposed to be good!

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Eye Tracking Architecture to ‘See’ Human Nature

Humans are remarkable creatures, and a great way to appreciate the hidden aspects of our nature is with eye tracking, a biometric tool that measures how our eyes move to take in our surroundings—often without our conscious awareness or control. Eye tracking records what people look at and what they ignore. It’s really an amazing tool to help us understand human behavior and ultimately, better ‘see’ ourselves.

Eye tracking a blank wall in Somerville, Massachusetts with iMotions biometric software shows how viewer behavior shifts dramatically if graced with art. original photo: Dan Bartman

The images above, from our research, show the exit area outside the Davis Square subway station in Somerville, Massachusetts, as it exists today (at bottom) and how it might look with added art (images at top). Eye tracking—aggregating visual data to create ‘heat maps’—glows brightest and reddest where people look most. Here the heat maps show that people barely look at the wall exiting the subway, in a brief, 15-second testing interval, but with the added art they would behave much differently. They would likely approach or even linger in front of the art-filled wall and, significantly, perhaps even focus on the area long enough to create a memory of the moment.

Eye tracking reveals how people look at a library facade differently with windows; study with iMotions biometric software, with Justin Hollander at Tufts, for the City of New York

Eye tracking is fantastic at deconstructing how our experience of architecture happens without our awareness, depending on what’s in front of us. In the images above, for instance, we found people implicitly look at this library differently if it has windows. With windows, the eyes take in the façade fairly evenly; without windows (we Photoshopped them away) people ignore most of the building except its door. In these images, the yellow dots, represent fixations, spots where the eyes focus, and the lines between, saccades, tracking the movements between focal points. When asked where they’d rather wait,  people always respond in front of the building with windows, and they won’t know why. (But we have an idea; the added fixations the windows provide subliminally make people feel more secure in front of the fenestrated façade.)

How unconscious behaviors direct our experience of the built environment is a theme of the new book, Urban Experience and Design; Contemporary Perspectives on Improving the Public Realm just out this month. Its introductory chapter, featuring the images and research reported here, is followed by 14 original chapters by twenty researchers and academics from the US, Europe and the Middle East. The seminal idea: we can build better places for people worldwide by better understanding the remarkable ways we work. And today’s tech tools, including eye tracking, helping us ‘see’ our animal nature as never before, give us an unprecedented opportunity to use biometrics to improve the public realm.

You can read the first chapter of the new book here; more about revealing research reported in succeeding chapters to follow in future posts.

More on History of Eye Tracking:

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How Neuroscience Reframes Architectural History (on YouTube)

Story + video by Ann Sussman, RA

This video was posted last week at the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (ANFA) 2020 conference:

It reviews a poster, first presented at the 30th Annual International Trauma Conference in Boston, MA in 2019, which combines new understanding of how trauma changes the brain, altering perception, with new understandings of how normal or neurotypical perception works, making a viewer unconsciously prioritize taking in faces and areas of complexity and contrast. It seeks to answer an abiding question: why does modern architecture, post-WWI, look and feel so differently than traditional? Why is it so often blank and detail-free?

Certainly, an urge to bury the past, after WWI (1914-1918) with the horrors of industrialized warfare and loss of 20 million people, encouraged a new design approach, as did new technologies enabling the expansive use of glass, steel, and concrete, and accompanying economic incentives. 

But the missing link in the story we tell of how modern architecture came to be, is how trauma changes the brain, distorts a survivor’s perception of ‘reality’, and can manifest itself in every design move a survivor makes decades later without their awareness or conscious control. We can now explain a key reason why ‘modern’ architecture looked so different from that of the past – it represents a direct expression of the horror of the trench warfare that preceded it.

An effective way of ‘seeing’ this is by looking at the house built by a ‘founding modernist’, none other than Walter Gropius, (1883-1969), himself, the founder of the Bauhaus. On a rural road, twenty miles west of Boston in Lincoln, MA, the iconic ‘modern’ building looks little like the traditional New England houses in the area with their pitched roofs and shutters. Built twenty years after the Great War, in 1938, Gropius’ home has a flat root, slit windows and hidden front door. Undeniably, it was unique for its time, but reviewing its design today, psychologists describe it as actually firmly rooted in the past – Gropius’ own horrific one as a German soldier on the ghastly Western Front. We learn here how the neuroscience of trauma and how it changes the brain also reframes the history of modern architecture and helps us better understand what humans need to see to be at their best.

More information about how neuroscience informs our understanding of architecture and reframes its history, is elaborated in two new books, Urban Experience + Design, Contemporary Perspectives on Improving the Public Realm (Routledge, 2021) and in the 2nd edition of Cognitive Architecture (Routledge, 2021) which came out in July. We’ll have more to say about this latter book and its eye-tracking research, which references our work at, in coming posts.


Thanks to for featuring this video, October 7, 2020:

+ for printing related articles in September, 2020:

+ in Portuguese, thanks to for providing this translation:

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Faces: The Key to Making Happy Places

Screen Shot 2020-09-01 at 7.17.49 PMDo you see faces in these gingerbread cottages in Oak Bluffs, Martha’s Vineyard, a popular summer retreat on this island ten miles off the coast of Massachusetts? Does it seem like they are looking at you? Built as part of a Methodist campground in the 1860s, the houses replaced the pitched tents early congregants first set up. Today over 300 of them remain on the Campground site which was declared a National Historic Landmark in 2005.Screen Shot 2020-09-01 at 7.18.11 PMAnd who wouldn’t find them captivating? “The homes may be some of the most photographed in the entire country,” a 2016 article in Country Living reports. “Is there a more charming neighborhood in all of New England?” asks a recent post in New England Today. And of course, the cottages grab your eye, we’re a social species, hardwired to take in anything and everything that is face-like.

Pareidolia, the term for the very human phenomenon of seeing faces in everyday objects, is at work here. This visual illusion is an artifact of our evolution and secures our survival, explains a recent article in MedicalXpress. “We process these “fake” faces using the same visual mechanisms of the brain that we do for real ones,” it notes. “Our brain has evolved to facilitate social interaction, and this shapes the way that we see the world around us.”

So, no surprise, that the gingerbread houses have been a favorite of Vineyard visitors for years; our brain sees them as waiting to see us! As the pareidolia researcher Dr. Colin Palmer says: “We know that the object doesn’t really have a mind, but we can’t help but see it as having mental characteristics like a ‘direction of gaze’ because of mechanisms in our visual system that become active when they detect an object with basic face-like features.”

Sensing face-like cottage facades makes us feel at home in a space, keeps us coming back and makes the visits memorable.  In the Vineyard, there’s another good place to appreciate the power of pareidolia, moving beyond architecture; it’s at Toad Rock, a historic site on Native American, Wampanoag, tribal land, in Acquinnah, twenty miles to the west.

Toad Rock

Here’s a place people have visited for thousands of years, and once there, you get why; it provides that one design element people most need to see to secure themselves in a space: a face.

The upshot? To make memorable places where people want to be, build in faces. Mother Nature, after all, has preset what we most need to see and we all pay a price, always, when we ignore her intent!


More posts on our face-bias here:

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The Case Against All-Glass Facades

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original images©Becky Chen

The pictures tell the story. And make the case. Biometric studies explain why. At left, is a photo of MassArt Design and Media Center, (c. 2016), a public college of applied art in downtown Boston; at right, the George Wythe House (c.1754), a historic site in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia. Which building most readily grabs your eye?

Where do you think people will look ?

It you guessed the building at right, the Georgian brick one and not the all-glass facade, you’re right! Biometric studies, using software which predicts how people view a scene initially, in the first 3-to-5 seconds, before conscious viewing comes online, show why.

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The VAS (Visual Attention Software) study creates region of interest (ROI) diagrams which reveal where viewers’ gaze likely goes, and indicate with red outlines that 75 to 82 percent of them take in the sky and areas around the glassy college building, rather than the structure itself! This is precisely opposite what happens with the old brick building, where 98 percent of views fall directly on the front facade and adjacent fence!

Screen Shot 2020-07-12 at 8.17.23 PMThe study’s heat maps above, aggregating predicted viewing data in color, glow reddest where people look most, and fade to dark grey and black in areas ignored, again showing how the brain directs views away from most of the glass building, and does the opposite with the brick one. Note how none of the historic house shows up black, and its door and many of its windows glow red, suggesting they’ll implicitly draw the eye. Even the house chimneys appear bright blue, and will draw attention unconsciously in pre-attentive mode.

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The study’s visual sequence diagrams, tracking the order the brain directs viewers to take in the scene initially, again indicate how, without conscious awareness or control, people focus around the edges of the glass building rather than at it. This indicates why approaching the building will be confusing, and finding the front door a challenge! With the Wythe House, on the other hand, the brain directs viewers to look right at the front door first! Amazing! That’s just what you’d want to see approaching a house or art school. And in the historic building, the brain keeps the eye focusing on the front facade, its architecture promoting a viewing pattern that’s more coherent, anticipating the viewer’s needs.

How can this be? “Facades impact architectural experience,” says Becky Chen, a student at the Boston Architectural College (BAC) who put together this study, and generously offered to share it with us here. “In my opinion, people don’t like looking at glass facades.” In this study, she used biometric software to reveal the hidden, pre-attentive traits that determine our architectural experience, showing how much pattern, color, areas of contrast, and different materials draw the eye instantly, which in turn directs our conscious behavior and experience of buildings.

So, what’s the issue with glass facades? The study suggests they lack the characteristics we evolved and still need to see, to secure us in a place, and ground us in space. We can’t focus or fixate on them; they don’t provide enough to look at. “Modern architecture can have the glass,” Becky Chen said. “But should have the elements of color and pattern to emphasize the space and attract people’s eyes.”


More posts on the Issue with Glass Facades:

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Empathy in Design: Measuring How Faces Make Places

Since 2015, Ragusa, Sicily has hosted FestiWall, an international art festival devoted to enhancing the public realm and improving citizen engagement with the modern section of an old city. Here are two views of a residential tower before and after FestiWall. Which one grabs your eye?

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Ragusa, Italy. Original image © FestiWall

We’ll guess you’re drawn to the one with the art at right. Running the image through biometric software predicts you’ll immediately focus on the man in the mural.

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Analysis with 3M VAS (Visual Attention Software) showing how people take things in.

And that’s what the analyses above shows. Note how the heat map, at left, which glows reddest where people look most, is on the face; the regions of interest diagram which aggregates predicted views, indicates 98% of viewers look straight at his head. And the gaze path, at right, shows people look first at the face, then briefly away before focusing right back on it again within the first 3-to-5 seconds.

And what happens if the building remains as is, untouched – blank? Not much! 

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Analysis with 3M VAS (Visual Attention Software)

The brain directs you to ignore the building. The grey wall simply cannot get attention. Note how the heat map, above left, shows up black, with views going around it; the regions of interest diagram, in center, makes focus shift to the sides, and the gaze path indicates people’s attention moves to the street below, never once settling on the tower, even though it’s directly centered before the viewer.

“The festival’s main goal is to open a dialogue between urban spaces and communities using city’s walls and street art as a medium.” say its founders Vincenzo Cascone and Antonio Sortino.This could be the first step towards a new perspective and a new development of the city.”

These striking efforts caught the attention of Caterina D’Amica and Isabel Gorham, students at the Boston Architectural College (BAC) who were interested in the way different murals engage the public, and which ones do so most effectively. They presented their findings, including the scenes above, last month.

“We compared and contrasted abstract FestiWall murals, with those with faces, with the original blank facades,” D’Amica and Gorham said. “The most successful murals, where attention is not dispersed, are the ones containing a face, a human form, and people in general.”

“Where the murals represent a person or a face, the attention is focused almost exclusively on the face or faces,” they reported, supporting the science on the face-bias in human perception. “Our brain is hardwired to find them; it’s a survival instinct.” Blank buildings, on the other hand, are “avoidant, and the eye does not pay attention to them, our vision diverted to edges, contrast, strong colors and light,” they added.

FestiWall murals are also a great example of empathy in design; the art that works best acknowledges first and foremost what we are built to see – a version of ourselves!  This hidden brain architecture directs our lives including our experience of buildings and our surroundings – whether we like it or not – and it always will!

It all goes to show how to best promote empathy in design: start with us, respecting the hidden traits that make us human.

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– – – –
Thanks to for reposting this article on their non-profit site July 1, 2020.
Thanks to for reposting this article July 3, 2020.
Thanks to for translating into Spanish and posting, July 7, 2020.
Thanks to for linking to this article on July 9, 2020.
Posted in Architecture, City Planning, Design, Eye Tracking, Neuroscience, People-centric Design, STEM | 2 Comments

Empathy in Design: Measuring the Impact of Biophilia

Is home your happy place? Does it make you feel warm and welcome?

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Interiors displayed on Instagram, @YellowTrace

Now that a pandemic has turned our homes into multipurpose spaces that double as offices, gyms, schools, playgrounds and safe havens from a virus, feelings matter more than ever. Can we use this moment to improve design, become more aware of what people need, and focus on how design makes us feel?

By paying special attention to people’s feelings, we can build empathy into the design process.

Plenty of magazines, catalogs, newsletters and streaming services have jumped on the bandwagon recently. Instead of articles about restorations, renovations and rehabs, they now ask, “How Does Your Home Make You Feel?” and give tips on “How to Adjust your Workspace to Fit You!”

The business world picked up on the trend a while ago. Harvard Business Review published a series on Emotional Intelligence including a book on Empathy (in 2017) to address the “human side of professional life.” And Apple Computer’s success has long-rested on prioritizing human feelings and experience; they routinely hire neuroscientists to help do so. Sites on Instagram like @ YellowTrace (images at right and below) encourage people to share their feelings about place and offer the opportunity to compare and contrast designs to see which they prefer and why.  Here we can learn what makes design empathetic.

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Preferred interiors on Instagram featuring  biophilic elements.

That’s what architectural students, Reem Alzayani and Sergio Ramos, did when they presented their research this month at the Boston Architectural College (BAC).*

Setting up a poll to compare preferences for living spaces on their Instagram site, they found that those rooms supporting biophilia, our innate tendency to want to connect with nature, were most preferred.

“The most successful images from the poll had plenty of biophilic elements, which most of the people that participated in the poll preferred over their counter images,” Alzayani and Ramos said. 

They also showed how spaces with low preference ratings could become more empathic by adding biophilic elements. Using 3M’s Visual Attention Software which tracks how our eyes take in a scene pre-attentively or unconsciously, in the first 3-to-5 seconds, the research demonstrated how adding biophilic elements can change how the eyes take in a scene – and contribute to an empathetic experience.

Screen Shot 2020-05-25 at 8.55.43 AM

Above, top left, is the original scene, below it, the same space with added biophilic elements. The heatmaps at immediate right, glowing reddest where people look most, indicate people take in the space more evenly with the added skylight and plant arrangements. In the visual sequence diagram, we can numerically follow the eye movements predicted during the first 3-to-5 seconds – confirming how people will immediately glance more evenly throughout the room with more greenery.

“Our focus was on the overall atmosphere of the space rather than creating a focal point in the interior space,” the team said. They used the same approach with the study below; “by adding more/bigger greener plants and changing the color of the light pendant we distributed the attention on the image.”

Screen Shot 2020-05-25 at 8.56.08 AMLooking at the heat map, visual sequence and regions of interest diagrams (which show in red outline where most viewers, 77-95%, look), we see how attention moves away from the hanging lights towards the greener elements in the room. This may be a reason why, in follow-up interviews, viewers found the photoshopped images more inviting.

Biometric studies like this coupled with preference studies and social media tools can help understand how design impacts us and uncover innate preferences. They aide our ability to design with empathy – helping to create spaces that make us feel warm and welcomed and safe and healthy. And what could be more relevant for our current moment? 

Next up: More on Empathic (or Empathetic) Design, a look at faces + fractals, key patterns that encourage it.

* Research done for BAC’s Architecture & Cognition class which explores new findings in neuroscience and new technologies that help us better understand architectureʼs impact on people. Ann Sussman, RA, instructor, more info: BAC and

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Do the ‘Fish Experiment’ to ‘See’ What We’re Built to See

Did you ever wonder about the strange way humans take in the world? Like the animals we are, of course! A quick way to see this is with the ‘Fish Experiment.’ Look at the images below and note where your eyes go—without any effort on your part!

Screen Shot 2020-03-24 at 8.44.26 PM Next this:
Screen Shot 2020-03-24 at 8.44.44 PMAnd these:Screen Shot 2020-03-24 at 8.44.58 PMNow, note what happens when you add a human face, someone famous, like CNN news anchor, Anderson Cooper:Screen Shot 2020-03-24 at 9.38.47 PMOr here:Screen Shot 2020-03-24 at 9.38.04 PMOr here:Screen Shot 2020-03-24 at 10.01.15 PMEven a well-known newsman like Cooper can’t get your attention like a red plastic fish, if the guy’s upside down. The brain’s not wired to let that happen. We’re a social species built for relationships, so much so that the brain makes it a priority to immediately focus and engage with any pattern arranged like a face—when it’s right side up.

And so, turn the tables, and Anderson becomes engaging again! Suddenly, riveting!Screen Shot 2020-03-24 at 10.55.06 PMWhy should architects and designers care? We can be as creative as we like, of course, but will always be most successful once we realize nature’s bias—what she wants us to see and incorporate—the primal pattern—where she always, like it or not, makes us focus first.

Thanks to David Brussat, of Architecture Here and There for linking to this post, 4-05-20.

For more on the ‘primal pattern’ check out:

Posted in Neuroscience, Patterns, People-centric Design, Primal Vista | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

The Public Realm: What Cars Took Away + Never Gave Back


Where would you rather be? The main street above or the one below?


We’d guess you’ll pick the one most at top, even though these images show the very same street — photographed about 100 years apart!

It’s Commonwealth Avenue in West Concord, MA about 15 miles west of Boston. What’s changed? The cars everywhere! In 1906, the approximate age of the postcard up top, the space was welcoming and inviting with the horse and buggy in the distance. Today, the color photo shows the same street can’t quite compete; it’s too full of cars, making the place feel congested — like its mostly for motor vehicles and not for people at all.

No one would think of making a postcard of West Concord today looking down the same street. And guess what? None exists!

And that’s the loss we all carry — not just charming postcards of  local places — but the very idea of the public realm, inviting spaces that draw everyone in, encouraging people to safely walk about, linger and meet up.

Cars gave us mobility, and we paid an incredibly steep and rarely-spoken-of price: the loss of the spaces we most need to see and be in — and even the very notion that such places could exist!

What’s most surprising about the old postcard? Showing it to other people and seeing their surprise at how nice the local street once looked!  We live in such a car-brained world, people simply can’t imagine places without them. Cars vanquished the public realm along with our ability to create spaces that we most need to see and be in to be at our best. To build a healthier future, we’d do well to remember what cars took away, how the spaces are still needed, and ways to bring them back.

The image below shows the back of the post card, with postage set at 1 cent domestically, which was the price before WWI. Imagine!


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Why Buildings Need ‘Eyes’

As a social species, we are built to see eyes, so we look for them all the time — everywhere — without conscious awareness or control. When we find them, they grab our attention, anchoring us in space, securing us to a place. So, it’s no surprise that tour buses driving through historic Cambridge, Massachusetts, always stop in front of the Harvard Lampoon building (below c.1909), home of the university’s satirical campus weekly. This building looks like it’s waiting to see you. How else to make a tourist trip memorable!

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The Harvard Lampoon Building with VAS analysis ©; original image ©wikimedia

A quick assessment with biometric software, (3M VAS), predicts people return the favor, instantly focusing on its round-eye-like windows.  Visual Attention Software, or VAS, predicts where people look ‘at-first-glance’, the first 3-to-5 seconds they take in a scene, and creates ‘heat maps’ that glow brightest where people look most, (central image above), and visual sequence diagrams, (above right), predicting the order they’ll likely look at things — showing again how much the eyes have it. (Yes, a mouth-like door gets attention too, but notice how VAS predicts our brain directs us to check out both of the ‘eyes’, ‘at-first-glance’, before conscious awareness kicks in.)

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Greenway Mural with VAS analysis ©lingchuanmeng

The same holds true for murals on buildings like the one above, temporarily displayed on a blank wall in Boston’s Greenway, a few years ago. We see here how the heat map, at top right, glows brightest in the eye area while the red outlines of the ‘areas-of-interest’ diagram below it, show 75% of viewers instantly focus on the central part of the portrait which also might suggest an oval eye. 

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Face eye tracked with iMotions software ©

Photos of people show the eye bias too, with the ‘heat map’ on the face above created with iMotions eye-tracking software, in an on-screen 15-second testing interval. These eye-tracking studies also reveal something else important and too-often overlooked: how human perception is dyadic — it’s relational; we’re built to see each other and need to do so for survival including regulating our emotions on a daily basis. So, like breathing and eating, we arrive in the world hardwired to check out other faces all the time, everywhere, focusing on eyes to get the most critical information about our surroundings. And, from our brain’s million-year-old perspective, it does not matter if the ‘face’ in front of us is fake, or in an inanimate building facade, it’s going to check it out.

Why does this matter? Because to understand and build architecture successfully today, it’s important to acknowledge our ‘secret’ human biases that secured our survival over millennia.  A famous line from William Faulkner comes to mind:

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Remember that saying if you want to understand how people really ‘see’ architecture, and what people still need to see and feel to be at their best, today. We are not modern and evolution has preset the way we look out on the world and what we most need to see. The eyes have it.

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Thanks to Lingchuan Meng, Boston Architectural College (BAC) B.Arch. candidate, and a student in Architecture & Cognition, 2018, class, for the VAS images of the Greenway mural.

Thanks to The Greenway Conservancy, News for linking to this post, November 13, 2019.

Thanks to for linking to this post, November 14, 2019.

Thanks to CNU (Congress for the New Urbanism) Public Square blog for publishing this post, November 18, 2019.

Posted in Architecture, Eye Tracking, STEM | Tagged , , | 2 Comments