Eye Tracker Technology Uncovers What People Fixate On

Faculty and students at Merrimack College are using a sophisticated tool — the eye tracker — to evaluate various eye movements.

Specifically, they are conducting research that assesses when a person enters a “flow,” which is a state of being fully immersed in a visual task such as reading.

Participants in this research read a special passage featuring a manipulated color font that helps to induce a state of flow. Once they reach that state, researchers attempt to determine if they can measure where an individual’s attention is most heavily focused. The eye tracker consists of a small desk-mounted camera that uses complex algorithms to determine the exact eye position when participants read on the screen. As a result, the methodology lends to collaborations that span across many schools on campus.

Merrimack’s eye tracker research is led by Michael Stroud, associate professor of psychology, whose expertise focuses on visual attention. After using the technology extensively in his own graduate studies, he concluded that the Merrimack campus could benefit greatly from having it on campus. “The eye tracker is truly a unique piece of research equipment that allows us to explore questions in a way that’s simply not possible through other experimental means,” he said. “Having access to the most precise eye tracker available [SR Research Eyelink 1000 plus] allows for a variety of interdisciplinary collaborations and provides students with experience in methodology that’s becoming more and more prevalent in colleges and industry.”

Ray Lavoie, assistant professor of marketing at Merrimack and an expert in flow, credits the eye tracker for expanding his research capabilities. “It is difficult to define flow, but the most succinct explanation is that flow is a state of seemingly effortless immersion,” he said. “Not only are you completely immersed, but your thoughts and actions are highly fluent. By using the eye tracker, we are trying to capture the relationship between visual attention and the major aspects of flow. We want to look at visual attention over time in a process, and we plan to build on this foundation to look at the downstream effects of flow on visual attention.” 

This summer, Stroud and select students will analyze data from eye tracker trials conducted during the school year. In the fall, they plan to use the eye tracker to gather data on eye movements involved in playing video games and other areas of business marketing.


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