Believing your own eyes

A laboratory for measuring eye movements is allowing researchers at the University of Stavanger to determine what people are able to see.

- The eye is filmed by a camera mounted on a cycling helmet, explains Associate Professor Per Henning Uppstad at the National Centre for Reading Education and Research.

- Another camera films what the eye is looking at. Putting these two recordings together makes it possible to see the movements of the eye as a red dot which shifts back and forth between text and pictures, depending on what the test subject is looking at.

Together with Associate Professor Åse Kari H Wagner, he is in the process of building up a research team around the eye movement lab.

Headed by Professor Finn Egil Tønnesen, this group aims to use the facility to encourage undergraduates, PhD students and researchers in asking new questions.

- What actually grabs people’s attention when they read newspapers, see a film, surf the net or read a children’s book, asks Prof Wagner.

She is a strong believer in the opportunities offered by the new technology incorporated in the lab:

- Even newborn babies have had their eye movements studied with similar equipment.

Prof Uppstad believes a good collective term for research in this field is “visual attention”.

- Interest in what people focus their attention on isn’t confined to researchers in reading and language like us, he notes.

- This facility can support interesting studies in many different disciplines, and research projects in partnership with business could also be relevant.

- We’ll be staging a seminar this autumn for researchers and MSc students as well as interested people from the business community in order to demonstrate the possibilities of the lab.

- The Reading Centre wants this facility to be used not only in-house, but also for other interesting research projects.

What the eye sees is not the only interesting question which can be addressed this type of technology. Reading Centre staff are fascinated by the prospect using the eye as a control tool.

- Technology based on eye movements is used today by people with motor neurone disease, like famed scientist Stephen Hawking,” explains Prof Wagner.

- They’ve been robbed of their ability to communicate with the external world, but eye movements allow them to control a computer to write texts and synthesise speech.

- Some time in the future, it may even be more natural for us to use our eyes rather than a keyboard and mouse to work with a computer.

And Prof Uppstad reports that the car industry is also experimenting with eye movement equipment to detect the characteristic features of sleep.

- If there’s a danger that the driver is falling asleep, they can be alerted with the aid of a light beam which will help to guide their attention back to the road.

Studying eye movements is also interesting for investigating reading and writing processes, he noted.

- Following such motions in real time is completely different to other forms of testing. Combined with other information, this can give us new and important insights.

He reports that test subjects are often astonished when they see films of their own eyes in motion.

- They don’t always believe what they see. Some of them even deny that our film shows their actual reading pattern. We’re fairly unconscious about how we read text, graphs and pictures.

Oddny Judith Solheim, PhD student at the Reading Centre, is using the lab to explore how 10- and 13-year-old schoolchildren carry out various assignments related to a text they’ve read.

Part of the work for her thesis, this study seeks to answer a number of questions – such as whether differences exist in the way pupils use the text to find an answer.

Others include what they do with assignments which ask them to choose between “ready-made” answers as opposed to those where they must formulate their own response.

How do pupils relate to the text when they have to find information which is explicitly expressed? And do they use other strategies when the answer has to read “between the lines”?

- Knowledge about the ways different types of assignment influence pupil reading is central to work on developing reading tests,  Ms Solheim notes.

- I got interested in these issues through work on national testing of reading ability. It’s very instructive to see how children hop back and forth in a text.

- Some of them read the whole passage again in order to find the answer, whilst others quickly identify the key section. That says a lot about the way pupils manage to identify and extract information from a text.

Assistant Professor Marianne Røskeland at the Reading Centre is also interested in eye movements as part of her research into how schoolchildren read textbooks.

She is trying to discover how pupils relate text to pictures when they read, and believes that illustrations in textbooks must be used consciously both by teachers and publishers.

- A textbook normally comprises a number of elements, she notes.

- They’re often full of text snippets, illustrations, bullet points, box-outs and tables. But the question is whether students manage to utilise the illustrations. Do they get used at all, or do they simply serve as decor and rest for the eyes? It could also be that they disrupt learning rather than supporting it.

- It’s a paradox that school textbooks almost never refer to their illustrations in the text, as is normal in such works for adults.

- So the children must discover for themselves where it makes sense to stop reading in order to look at an illustration, while still having to find their way through the text. Studying eye movements allows us to follow pupils on that journey.

Text: Leif Måsvær
Photo: Elisabeth Tønnessen

Eye movement lab