Eye tracking: Capturing the consumer’s gaze

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Eye tracking equipment found in the Brimhall Building literally tracks the movement of the wearer as they scan images presented to them.

BYU students likely know about the Universe, Eleven News and the AdLab, but one lesser-known fixture of the School of Communications is the eye-tracking lab.

Communications professor Steve Thomsen brought the eye-tracking lab to the Brimhall Building several years ago for a research project. According to Thomsen, BYU was one of the first communications departments to get an eye-tracking lab. Previously eye tracking had mostly been used for neuroscience and psychology.

Since its establishment, the eye-tracking lab has been increasingly used by students and faculty. It has helped researchers understand racial bias in modeling, social media advertising and scientifically understanding ad design.

According to Kevin John, BYU assistant professor and director of the eye-tracking lab, the system uses a bright pupil method. “They use infrared light to illuminate a person’s eye and then an infrared camera to detect the reflection of the person’s pupil and cornea,” John said. “The relationship between these two reflections (is) to tell exactly where the person is looking on the screen.”

Eye tracking is useful in advertising because it can help designers see exactly where people are looking and if they are looking where they were meant to.

“I think eye tracking will improve the design of ads, will make ad design more efficient and will help creative types understand what elements are most likely to draw the strongest reaction and the greatest amount of attention,” Thomsen said.

This technology can also avoid costly and ineffective ad campaigns. “Eye tracking allows ad designers to see exactly how their visual messages are received, potentially before pulling the trigger on large-scale campaigns,” John said. “This data helps them to understand how their ads are processed psychologically and to tweak them in response to make them better.”

One of the most widely used measures of ad effectiveness is whether or not people remember the ad later on. For this reason, eye-tracking studies are often followed up by recall tests. According to Thomsen, these tests have in fact shown that the more a person fixates on an element of an ad, the more they remember later, demonstrating the need for advertisers to ensure people are focusing on the right things.

The cost of eye tracking may slow, but not stop, the process of integrating the technology into mainstream ad design. “Eye tracking equipment with respectable levels of accuracy are still very expensive, so that serves as a barrier to broad application of the method in the advertising industry,” John said. “I believe we will see it growing as we move forward, though, especially in the next decade or so.”

As this technology grows, BYU communications students will continue to be on the forefront. Thomsen recalled one study done by a group of undergraduate students several years ago that won the top award at a conference in Texas.

The study tested whether there was a visual bias toward models of one’s own race while looking at otherwise identical ads and found that most people exhibit a tendency toward ads with models of their own race.

The visual bias study is one of many that have taken place in the eye-tracking lab over the last few years. Tyler G. Page, a graduate student, used eye-tracking in his thesis to test the reach of Facebook advertisements.

“Eye tracking empowers us to understand how people look at advertisements, watch videos or surf the web,” Page said. “With that information, we can optimize messaging in very sophisticated ways.”

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