Work of art

Manchester University researchers are to transform a leading art gallery into a laboratory to determine whether or not people experience art in the same way.

Under normal circumstances, it is impossible to know whether any two people look at the same parts of a painting or whether their attention is drawn to different elements.

However, researchers from Manchester University‘s School of Computer Science and the Manchester Art Gallery are now planning to deploy an infrared system to determine whether reaction to art is a common experience.

They will use the system to determine the order that people look at different elements in a series of 12 paintings from the gallery, as well as the length of time they spend looking at them.

Their research will be carried out on members of the public, as well as staff from the gallery who are already familiar with the works on display.

As part of the experiment, volunteers will be asked to sit in front of a computer screen, where the images of the paintings will be displayed.

Infrared technology – calibrated to the individual – will then track the movement of the eye through the reflection of the light and then map the movement into a network of lines and dots that can be tracked on the screen, showing the movement of the eye and the length of time it remained focused on a single point.

The findings will suggest for the first time whether or not we all look at art in the same way or whether our experience is more individual.

The researchers – led by Dr Simon Harper, Dr Caroline Jay and Dr Andrew Brown – believe that the findings could have implications on the way that websites are designed in the future.

‘This is exploratory work in which we are looking for patterns in the way people look at different visual elements,’ said Jay.

‘We can’t yet say if there’s a definitive order that people look at things, but this may help us to understand how and why people focus on particular areas in sequence, what attracts them and what is the deciding factor for this sequencing.

‘It may be that, with portraits, people are drawn to the eyes, for example, but we don’t know. And with abstracts we don’t know whether there will be any similarity between the eye tracks at all.

‘The findings will help us decide the order in which we present things. If people do experience these in similar ways, then there is a design message. This may inform the design of websites,’ she added.