A little on eye-tracking in museums

Lately I’ve been doing some eye-tracking research in Museums and other GLAM spaces, mostly looking at wayfinding and moving towards asking new questions about engagement.

But the story starts a bit earlier than last week.

Almost two years ago the Lab acquired a set of Tobii eye-tracking glasses. How we did that is a not-very-interesting story in itself. Let’s just say that they were staggeringly expensive and we couldn’t have bought them without the support of all sorts of people in the School and the old Faculty.

We bought the glasses to do wayfinding research in Airports. Andrew Cave is our PhD researcher on that particular aspect of the bigger Airports project and he’s making awesome progress. Wayfinding research has normally tried to figure out what people are looking at, and what they’re doing, after the fact by having them draw maps or paths. Sometimes wayfinding researchers ask people to narrate what they’re doing as they do it.

What we can do with the glasses is find out more about what people are looking at in the moments before they make choices about where to go and what they look at as they’re moving. It’s fascinating.

One of the most interesting things is being able to see what people don’t look at.

We’re also doing another airports-related project with the glasses which is about how security staff who use x-ray scanners to look at bags look at bags. There’s been a lot of research done about expertise and specifically visual expertise. The Tobii glasses give us a new way to ask questions about expertise in visual tasks.

What I’ve been doing is an adaptation of Andrew Cave’s project, shifting the wayfinding context from airports to museums. The data-making technique is the same, we put the glasses on volunteers and ask them to use the space as they normally would (while being shadowed by someone — we make no claims about the naturalness of this method!). The analysis is, at this early stage, far less sophisticated than Andrew’s multi-layered approach.

The analysis is done by recording where people go and linking that to what they say and what they look at. The results, so far, are commercial-in-confidence but align with what people have said about how people use museums. What’s new is the granularity of what we’ve found out. With this new detail about what’s happening as people move through museums, we hope to be able to, slowly, make changes in how museums and museum exhibits are planned, designed and understood.


3 thoughts on “A little on eye-tracking in museums

  1. I would have nothing to contribute to this article except for the fact that Museums and the Web sent around a eulogy for Ed Bachta yesterday.

    In part, it says:

    He enjoyed coming to MW, and his work will be represented at this year’s conference in a fascinating paper on eye-tracking technology that will be presented on Thursday at 10:30 a.m. in Salon H&G (http://mw2013.museumsandtheweb.com/proposals/capturing-visitors-gazes-three-eye-tracking-studies-in-museums/).

    Remembering Ed Bachta, by Bruce Wyman on Museums and the Web, 16 April 2013

    Hope this helps.

  2. Hi Ben,
    Analyzing what is happening as people move through museums is very challenging. We did a similar study in an art gallery with painting. Here it was much easier because the amount of paintings are known, the paintings are 2D and the visitors have known interests. So we had only to deal with distance, angle, time, sequences, emotions, etc.
    So I’m looking forward for your first results. I’m quite happy to post them as well on our Swiss Eye Tracking blog http://eyetracking.ch/category/news/ if I’m allowed to. Enjoy your challenge, it will be very interesting.

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