'Here's looking at you' has new meaning

November 21, 2002

Noting that the eyes have long been described as mirrors of the soul, a Queen's computer scientist is studying the effect of eye gaze on conversation and the implications for new-age technologies, ranging from video conferencing to speech recognition systems.

Dr. Roel Vertegaal, who is presenting a paper on eye gaze at an international conference in New Orleans this week, has found evidence to suggest a strong link between the amount of eye contact people receive and their degree of participation in group communications. Eye contact is known to increase the number of turns a person will take when part of a group conversation. The goal of this study was to determine what type of "gaze" (looking at a person's eyes and face) is required to have this effect.

Two conditions were studied: synchronized (where eye contact is made while the subject is speaking) and random contact, received at any time in the conversation. The Queen's study showed that the total amount of gaze received during a group conversation is more important than when the eye contact occurs.

The findings have important implications for the design of future communication devices, including more user-friendly and sensitive video conferencing systems - a technology increasingly chosen in business for economic and time-saving reasons - and Collaborative Virtual Environments (CVEs) which support communication between people and machines. Dr. Vertegaal's group is also implementing these findings to facilitate user interactions with large groups of computers such as personal digital assistants and cellular phones.

The eye contact experiment used computer-generated images from actors who conveyed different levels of attention (gazing at the subject, gazing at the other actor, looking away, and looking down). These images were presented to the subjects, who believed they were in an actual three-way video conferencing situation, attempting to solve language puzzles. The researchers concluded that people in group discussions will speak up more if they receive a greater amount of eye contact from other group members. There was no relationship between the impact of the eye contact and when it occurred.

"The effect of eye gaze has literally fascinated people throughout the ages," says Dr. Vertegaal, whose paper, Explaining Effects of Eye Gaze on Mediated Group Conversations: Amount or Synchronization? was presented this week at the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work.

"Sumerian clay tablets dating back to 3000 BC already tell the story of Ereshkigal, goddess of the underworld, who had the power to kill Inanna, goddess of love, with a deadly eye," says Dr. Vertegaal. "Now that we are attempting to build more sophisticated conversational interfaces that mirror the communicative capabilities of their users, it has become clear we need to learn more about communicative functions of gaze behaviours."

Queen's University

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