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How do we evaluate architecture? What are the key points that make a structure attractive for a person? Common Edge has recently published a can’t-miss article that shows a way we can use high-tech tools to understand hidden human behaviors and assess different buildings. So, what happens when you apply a biometric measure like eye-tracking to architecture? A team of researchers has been running four pilot-studies looking at buildings in both city and suburb (New York City, Boston, Somerville and Devens, MA) since 2015, and come to some useful conclusions.
Let’s check out some of the results:
PEOPLE IGNORE BLANK FACADES
Run even one eye-tracking study and this result will hit you on the head like a ton of bricks. Put it in red lights: People don’t tend to look at big blank things, or featureless facades, or architecture with four-sides of repetitive glass. Our brains, the work of 3.6 billion years of evolution, aren’t set up for that. This is likely because big, blank, featureless things rarely killed us. Or, put another way, our current modern architecture simply hasn’t been around long enough to impact behaviors and a central nervous system that’s developed over millennia to ensure the species’ survival in the wild. From the brain’s visual perspective, blank elevations might as well not be there.
You can see this in the study above. It shows two views of NYC’s Stapleton library, one with existing windows, at right and, at left, one without them (a photoshopped version we made of the same facade). The bright yellow dots represent “fixations” that show where eyes rest as they take in the scene in a 15-second interval; the lines between are the “saccades” that follow the movement between fixations. On average, viewers moved their eyes 45 times per testing interval, with little to no conscious effort or awareness on their part, and no direction on ours. In the image at left, without windows, test-takers more-or-less ignored the exterior, save for the doorway. This is not the case with the image at right. The photos below show heat maps which aggregate the viewing data of multiple individuals. These maps, glowing brightest where people looked most, suggest how much fenestration patterns matter: they keep people fixating on the facade, providing areas of contrast the eyes innately seek and then stick to. Again and again, our studies found that buildings with punched windows (or symmetrical areas of high contrast) perennially caught the eye, and those without, did not.
2. FIXATIONS DRIVES EXPLORATION
Why does it matter where people look without conscious control? That’s the ultimate question. In the course of our research, we picked up a cognitive science mantra, “fixations drive exploration,” and learned that unconscious hidden habits, such as where our eyes “fixate” without conscious input, determines where our attention goes and that’s hugely significant. Why? Because unconscious fixations in turn direct conscious activity and behavior. No wonder Honda and GM use this technology. No wonder advertisers of all stripes do too. They want to know where we look so they can manage our behavior, making certain an ad grabs attention as intended, before it’s released. They want to manage our unconscious behavior so they get the conscious outcome they desire from our brains, (without having to lift a metaphorical finger!)
And what about architecture? Eye tracking can help us untangle the fraction-of-a-second experiences that drive our actions around buildings in ways we may never realize. To see how our “fixations drive exploration,” let’s take the scene above; at left is Davis Square in Somerville, MA, a dense residential district near Cambridge, home to many colleges and businesses. At right, the image shows a photoshopped version of the same scene. In the past year we’ve asked more than 300 people at lectures where they’d rather stand and wait for a friend: in front of the blank building or in front of the building with the colorful Matisse-like mural. Amazingly—without even talking with one another—everyone picked the same place, standing in front of the mural.
Why? Turns out eye tracking suggests some interesting answers. The heat map below indicates that the mural provides fixation points to focus on; these give us a type of attachment we like and seem to need to feel at our best; without these connections people apparently don’t know where to go—they get anxious—and so won’t select the blanker site. Amazing the power of fixations to drive exploration whether in ads or architecture. (I guess it has to be this way since we only have one brain.)
You can find the full article here.