New Lab Rats, New Lab Equipment

By Edo Steinberg

Last Spring the College of Arts and Sciences gave the Institute for Communication Research money to buy new lab equipment. The two main purchases were the BIOPAC physiology system and the Tobii Eye Tracker.

The fearless reporter and his fearless eyeballs, as seen by the Tobii Eye Tracker.

The fearless reporter and his fearless eyeballs, as seen by the Tobii Eye Tracker.

“They arrived at the same time,” says Rob Potter, director of the ICR. “I had familiarity with physiology, I had familiarity with the BIOPAC system and I knew I had to teach using that system in an Intensive Freshman Seminar (IFS) in August. When they both arrived at the same time, I hooked the eye tracker up and made sure that no parts were broken and essentially we could pay the bill. Then I turned it on and it looked terrible. The fidelity of the screen wasn’t right.”

Because time was pressing, Rob decided to focus on the BIOPAC first. He put the eye tracker in the corner. Vacation, the IFS course and a conference led to the eye tracker being left alone until late August.

Then incoming graduate student Anthony Almond asked Rob if he could spend some time in the lab. “I said to myself, ‘I better grab Anthony while I can, before another faculty member does,’” Rob recalls. “I said, how about Tuesdays and Thursdays. I shot for the moon. He said yes. Then, I was lucky enough to get Niki as my AI. Later, Glenna came up to me and said ‘I hear you have this meeting.’”

During these new students’ first meeting with Rob at the ICR, Anthony took a look at the eye tracking system, which he had some experience with previously. After about an hour, he figured out the problem and fixed it by installing updated video drivers.

Rob says that the ICR is the place for students who wish to get experience with lab equipment to come, if they ask Rob or lab manager Sharon Mayell to come. “Anthony was able to come in and try to troubleshoot stuff. That’s exactly the type of environment we want to have. All the way back when Annie Lang was the director, that was the environment she tried to instill. Bring your ideas to the ICR and work on investigating questions that interest you.”

Now, Anthony, Glenna and Niki spend time at the ICR, getting to know the equipment and preparing for future participation in research projects.

“I’m continuing to figure out what acronyms stand for,” Niki jokes.

Niki sees where she looked when she watched a video.

Niki sees where she looked when she watched a video.

“The eye tracker can do more than just see where you look,” Anthony says. “It can also measure the size of your pupil, and when your eyes are moving rapidly across the screen. You can also use it in combination with other physiological measures. For example, if someone is looking at a website and their heart rate decelerates, is it because they were looking at the ad on the side, because they were reading the text or because of something else entirely?”

Other applications include whether or not people notice certain things on the screen, as well as implications for design. For instance, website developers can see if the audience is looking at what they want to show or something else is distracting people.

“I’m here for a crash course in both physiology and eye tracking research,” says Niki. “I want to see what others are doing and throw myself into the world of research, to see what’s possible.”

Glenna has used the BIOPAC system before. “But I haven’t done a lot with it,” she emphasizes.

“I used the BIOPAC before, as well,” Anthony says. “And this morning Rob showed me something about it I didn’t know. Now I have to show him how to do fancy software stuff.”

“It’s been really cool to see how everyone comes together and collaborates with what they know from the past,” Niki says. “Anthony, Glenna and Rob all have these interesting areas of expertise.”

If you also want to be a lab rat, as people conducting research in the ICR are affectionately called, get in touch with Rob!

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