Eye-Tracking in the Real World: Insights About the Urban Environment

Eye-Tracking in the Real World: Insights About the Urban Environment

Jim Uttley, James Simpson, Hussain Qasem
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-3637-6.ch016
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Visual behaviour provides an objective and measurable indication of cognitive processes and perceptions that may otherwise be difficult to assess. The development of eye-tracking technology has allowed the accurate and relatively convenient measurement of visual behaviour. Most research using this technology has been based in a laboratory setting. This is not without good reason, as eye-tracking ‘in the wild'—in real, naturalistic, and outdoor settings—poses logistical and methodological difficulties. One particular limitation that afflicts eye-tracking research, including real-world eye-tracking, is the difficulty in directly attributing attention to what is being looked at. This chapter presents three case studies that illustrate the use of eye-tracking in real-world settings with attempts to overcome this limitation. The chapter concludes by discussing the future direction of eye-tracking research, including how to integrate it with multisensory experiences, its use in conjunction with virtual reality technology, and its implications for urban planning and environmental design.
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Studying Eye Movements

The eyes are often quoted as being ‘windows to our soul’. This sentiment reveals the deep connection between the eyes and being human. They provide us with vision, the most dominant of our five senses that uses over a third of our brain (Findlay and Gilchrist, 2003), and they are also an essential part of social interaction (Emery, 2000). The eyes also provide a link to the cognitive and perceptual processes that are taking place ‘under the bonnet’, within our brains. What we look at, when we look, how we look and how long we look all have implications for how we process, interpret and interact with the environment around us. For example, from earliest infancy we look at things that grab our attention and interest us, and this can result in ‘sticky fixations’ where an infant under the age of 3 months finds it difficult to look away from a central stimulus. It is only from 3 months onwards that we find it easier to disengage from something that initially holds our attention (Johnson et al, 1991). This very early developmental behaviour highlights the ingrained connection between our eyes and the outside world. There is also a strong connection between where we look, the outside world and our actions in that world. When performing a routine task, such as making a cup of tea or preparing a sandwich, we tend to look at objects involved in that task just before they are needed (Hayhoe, Shrivastava, Mruczek & Pelz, 2003). These ‘just in time’ fixations mean we might only look at the knife we will use to butter our bread half-a-second before actually picking it up. The link between attention and where we look is highlighted by how difficult it is to pay attention to one location whilst moving our eyes to a different location (Hoffman and Subramaniam, 1995). Try it yourself.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Virtual Reality: An immersive experience in which an individual may experience a pre-created or recorded environment but be able to visually interact within that environment, for example, by looking around it. A virtual reality environment is often presented using a headset that encompasses the visual field.

Attentional Attribution Issue: The potential disconnect between where someone is looking and where their attention is directed. An illustration of this is mindless reading, when eyes may scan across the words on a page but the meaning of those words is not processed as attention is elsewhere.

Gaze Behaviour: The pattern of eye movements of an individual, which includes saccades and fixations.

Cognitive Architecture: A general theoretical approach put forward by Sussman, Hollander, and colleagues that focuses on the influence architecture and the built environment has on human behaviour and how people respond differently to the urban context depending on their own interpretation of a place.

Urban Street Edge: The indoor/outdoor interface spanning street and building that often defines the character, spatial qualities, functions, and ultimately, people’s overall experience of the street.

Eye-Tracking: Recording of eye movements and other data related to the eyes, such as pupil diameter. A number of methods are available, the most common using video-based corneal/pupil reflection.

Real-World Eye-Tracking: Recording the eye movements of an individual generally using a mobile eye-tracker in a real, uncontrolled, often outdoor environment, possibly whilst the individual carried out a natural task.

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