IU research opens eyes to children’s point of view

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) — The objects on a table in a psychology lab at Indiana University are a red mound topped with a propeller and a blue stick with a ball at the end.

These plastic toys aren’t necessarily comparable to anything, but they were designed to be novel, given names such as “Bosa” or “Dodi” — English-sounding to a child but not anything they’ve heard before. The toys are placed in front of a 1-year-old boy by his mother, a headset pointing a camera at his right eye; it’s described as a “Google Glass-like” device, but the headset is more crude than the commercial product being pumped on the nightly news ahead of its 2014 release. Black wiring hangs off a band and points what looks like a tiny Christmas light bulb toward the eye.

While Google has raced to the forefront of commercial head-mounted displays — the company has a patent for the process that would allow its product to follow a person’s eye as they read text on a lens — other forms of eye-tracking technology have already opened new possibilities for research teams at IU. Associate professor Chen Yu, professor Linda Smith and their researchers in the department of psychological and brain sciences want to figure out where children will look when they are playing with toys.

Will they look at the object their mother is looking at, or will they lock on to the one in their mother’s hand? And have they learned the “names” of these objects?

Yu and his team found a child was more likely to focus on the toy in the mother’s hand. The headset streams the child’s point of view to a nearby computer, a close-up of his right eye in the corner of the screen. Algorithms match the position of the eyeball with a point on a larger video feed showing what the child sees. Overlapping horizontal and vertical lines intersect where the child is looking at any given millisecond.

At times during one taping, the boy would look at empty hands, placed against someone’s leg, for instance, waiting to see which toy would be given to him next. This is important, Yu said, because it shows how a person’s brain develops and what kinds of communication — gaze-following or hand-following — best teaches the child about the object and its name.

Adults don’t stuff objects in each other’s faces to show them something, Yu said. They mutually look at something. A child’s ability to focus on what others are looking at, however, is less developed. They focus on the hand, and, when the object is in their hand, they hold the object really close to learn as much about it as they can.

These findings about “normal” children’s learning processes between 12 and 24 months, Yu said, will help researchers develop better strategies to teach language to more challenged children, in particular, people with autism or cochlear implants.

“Most people study that from a third-person view,” Yu told The Herald-Times (http://bit.ly/1jwmnUy ). “Using this device, we have the exact information they view. This is the data they perceive, running through their system. We know exactly which objects they attended to, what’s the size of the object, and we test how they learn those objects.”

‘The Office’

In the 1960s, eye-tracking experiments were conducted with contact lenses more like suction cups literally attached to someone’s eyeball, according to IU assistant professor Dan Kennedy. The subject could only tolerate it for minutes at a time. Children couldn’t tolerate it at all.

Eye-tracking technology like the headset being used by Yu allows younger subjects to be studied and provides accurate readings from the eye. Kennedy, on the other hand, wanted to study the eye-movement patterns of adults with and without autism.

He didn’t use a headset, but instead a monitor playing episodes of the television show “The Office,” with a tiny tracking device inside the screen shooting small amounts of infrared light at the subject’s eye, figuring out where they were looking. He found that autistic subjects were more likely to focus on the brightest pixels on the screen, rather than faces.

Eye-tracking devices set in monitors are affected by heads moving around and the sensors losing a good reading of the eye’s point of focus. Many of them force people to keep their heads pressed up against a chin bar. But the system Kennedy uses allows for accurate tracking of the eye as long as the person’s head stays within a certain frame.

Kennedy chose “The Office” because it is centered around social interactions and “awkward moments,” presenting nuanced emotional responses autistic people may not pick up on. There is no laugh track to cue them to the tenor of the scene. There are shots that focus on one person — the “monologues” where characters explain their views on a conflict — but there are also scenes with multiple characters in one shot, without the camera zooming in to capture their emotions. IU researchers picked the pilot episode to start, because viewers didn’t have to know a character’s backstory, either.

The autistic group’s answers to questions like “Why does Jim feel this way?” and “Why did Dwight do that?” displayed less understanding of the character’s interactions, but Kennedy and his researchers have to figure out whether that means their abnormal eye movements hindered their ability to comprehend the scene or whether they were unable to understand what was going on, so their eye movements were scattered.

Improvements in eye-tracking technology will allow researchers to start studies at much younger ages, and autism studies have been conducted on children, waiting to see who in the group may later be diagnosed with autism, Kennedy said. But the potential for the technology will only increase with time.

“The trend seems to be they are becoming smaller, more reliable and more integrated,” Kennedy said. “Whether it’s for commercial uses or for scientific research, we are going to be able to collect more data.”


Information from: The Herald Times, http://www.heraldtimesonline.com

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