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How Biometrics Can Help Designers Build Better Places for People

Our last eye-tracking post reviewed biometric technology, common to advertising and product design, and how it holds game-changing promise for architecture. Tools like eye tracking, which record our “unconscious’ eye movements; EEG (electroencephalogram) which measures electrical activity in our brain; and Facial Expression Analysis, which records our shifting moods, all radically change our understanding of how people respond to a variety of stimuli.


How so? Eye tracking, for example, can forecast how humans will behave around buildings, particularly exteriors, which turns out to be important for assessing things like walkability or an area’s overall appeal.


Eye tracking measures both the conscious and unconscious responses people have to visual stimuli. It tracks pre-attentive processing, the activity our brain engages in the first 3-5 seconds we look at something, well before our conscious mind can get into the act. That turns out to be hugely significant because pre-attentive behaviors set the parameters for our conscious action and experience.


Here we look at three ways biometrics can improve architectural design. Eye tracking architecture lets us:


Forecast the “Approach-Avoidance” Response



Humans evolved emotions for a very good reason: they helped us survive. We’re wired to “approach” or “avoid” elements in our environment instantly—choosing to move towards one place or another without conscious effort. Eye tracking helps deconstruct this process, showing how it happens mostly effortlessly and continuously. (Evolution wouldn’t have it any other way.)


In the cottage above (actually, Dunker Church on Antietam Civil War battlefield, Maryland) the shadow study reveals that people would be less likely to look at or approach the historic building if it lacked windows around the front door. This shadow study aggregated the data of 30 people who looked at the photos in 15-second testing intervals. Remarkably, the study also suggests the facades with windows makes people, with no conscious control, also focus on the surroundings immediately adjacent to the building (note the large black dot on stair rail). Without windows, people ignore the stairway leading to the church which, of course, effectively precludes their heading towards the building.



Collect Data for Evidence-Based Design



Evidence-based medicine has gained ground since the 1990s, encouraging clinicians to track the impact of their interventions to improve practice; we see evidence-based design in architecture beginning to take hold, too. Biometrics, significantly, give architects the tools needed to gather the hard data to predict how designs impact people before anything’s built.


The photo, above top left, shows existing conditions in Davis Square, Somerville, MA, a walkable area near many colleges and universities under increasing development pressure. How do people take it in?


The shadow study suggests the existing street view of the blank facade of a new parking garage confuses them, providing nowhere to look. Note how the study’s black spots swirl. Viewers’ experience changes, however, once a Matisse-like mural is applied (photoshopped). Note how attention focuses on the art to such an extent, people stop looking down the side street!  Asked where they’d rather stand, people (more than 300) consistently told us, without exception, they’d prefer waiting in front of the mural.


How can this be? Wired for attachment, our eyes constantly scan our surroundings looking for safe places to stick or fixate; and the fractal-like patterns provide them, satisfying this innate need and thus reducing anxiety, while the blank facade does neither. It’s astonishing to see, how one secure fixation place, in this instance a colorful biomimicking mural on concrete, so radically changes human behavior and attitude in the built environment – wordlessly.



Assess the Impact of a Design Intervention



How well does a design change user experience? If there are multiple options, which works best? Eye tracking can help determine the answer.


You see that here, in the study above of the subway exit at Somerville’s busy Davis Square. A blank, unwelcoming concrete wall (top left) greets riders exiting the station there every day, offering no acknowledgement of any human presence!  The shadow study’s array of bigger dots at its edges (in the photo at bottom left), indicates people avoid confronting the wall. Imagine: the first move the body makes at this doorway is avoiding arrival there!


Add soothing blue attractive art to the blank concrete and people’s behavior radically shifts; they go into approach-mode fixating on the wall as though it’s a long-lost friend.


The point here is not only to suggest the power of biometrics to elucidate human experience in the built environment but also to make clear something as important: we’re at the tip of the iceberg. Biotech is at a place today where we can pretty-much completely predict human response to whatever we build—whether people feel anxious approaching the new structure, or will want to linger outside it; whether they’ll chose to walk down a city street or never consider doing so, getting into a car instead. The question is no longer about the technology —it’s here and actively deployed in multiple design industries (auto, advertising, a.i., web design). The question is: Do we care enough about people to use these tools in architecture? Are we ready to abandon previous practices and 20th-Century not-very-biologically-based-mindsets to do so? We probably should, because at the end of the day, architecture is really about one thing: us. Our health, our happiness. What are we waiting for?


Biometric studies with iMotions software and EyeTribe eye-trackers created shadow-images above; research conducted at Dr. Justin B. Hollander’s Urban Attitudes Lab,Tufts and at studio, at ArtScape in the Bradford Mill, Concord, MA.  


Images: Davis Square parking garage, courstesy of City of Somerville, MA. All other photos by


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