Emerson professors research eye movement

by Agatha Kereere / Beacon Staff • September 18, 2014

Four Emerson professors have been using an eye tracker — a piece of equipment that not only projects images and movies but also records details pertaining to where the viewer is looking — to gain more knowledge about language and speech disorders.

The researchers, Joanne Lasker, Daniel Kempler, Ruth Grossman, and Rhiannon Luyster, all professors in Communication Sciences and Disorders, received a three-year, $41,575 grant in February from the National Science Foundation to purchase the device.

Lasker and Kempler are focusing on adults with aphasia, a disorder that leaves an individual without the ability to communicate, typically after a stroke, while Grossman and Luyster work with a master’s student on a thesis and conduct a similar study with children, respectively.

Lasker and Kempler used the Fall 2013 and Spring 2014 semesters to prepare their research questions and the eye tracker, taking the time to familiarize themselves with its assembly and its operation.

The tracker is comprised of a computer monitor that displays either an image or a video, which is then connected to a black, rectangular shaped infrared monitor by a regular cable.

The data concerning the eye movements is put into a spreadsheet and graphed in order to see how different people’s eyes respond to the image simulation.

“[The Eye Tracker] provides a unique opportunity to observe the eye movements in real time and measure what the person is looking at, how long the eyes move across an image, and how the eyes move from thing to thing,” Lasker said. “It’s amazing how [the tracker] records 250 to 500 snapshots of the position of the eye per second.”

The study that Lasker and Kempler are conducting is ongoing and will consist of several installments, with its first stage studying how adults without aphasia look at people with language difficulties.

“We’ll keep using [the eye tracker] as long as it works,” Lasker said. “There are a lot of questions to answer and we want to continue using it and incorporating it in our research.”

This summer, volunteers could sign up for the study on Emerson’s new research registry.

Participants arrived on the eighth floor of 216 Tremont St., where the eye tracker is currently located, and asked to watch about six to eight videos ranging from two to three minutes long while they answered questions. While the subjects were working, Lasker, Kempler, and Kate Hayden, a second year communication sciences and disorders graduate student and assistant, would take note of their progress.

“We worked with the software and set up an outline of the things that the observer looked at the most, such as the face and the hands,” Hayden said. “That way we could see when they looked at them, for how long, and make sure that the face and the hands were overlaid in each frame even if the image was moving. We’d be able to see which gestures were used more often.”

After the sessions ended, Yee or Hayden talked to the participants.

“We would discuss the videos that they had just watched and note their observations,” said Yee.

This study will conclude before Thanksgiving, Kempler said, adding that plans for its publication are to be determined.  Kempler and Lasker said they would like to see progress when it comes to available treatments for those with speech disorders.

“One of our goals is to help clinicians develop more meaningful treatment for those who have aphasia,” said Lasker.

Hayden said that she wants to see more attention paid to how people perceive those with communication disorders. She hopes ultimately that “the tracker can help give therapists — like speech and language pathologists — more helpful strategies to use,” and added that the exploration could help find ways to use the gestures as more effective ways of communicating.