Thursday, September 18, 2008

Look at me when I'm talking to you!

Today I have to take my cat to the vet, long-distance, so this will be a brief entry.

I'm thinking about eye gaze.

With all the child-rearing that I'm currently involved in, I meet a lot of different kids, and one thing I notice is the way that parents teach their children where to look. This happens both explicitly, as when parents insist that their children look them in the eye in a punishment situation, and inexplictly, through demonstration and observation.

I urge you never to underestimate a child's natural powers of observation. I think they must be adaptively selected for keenness when it comes to cues about emotion in adults; once the brain develops enough to grasp social cues of this nature, around age 9 months, watch out!

Adults are pretty good at this, too. Think about how much of the time you look around to see what someone is looking at - and then think about how certain you are of your judgment. It's amazing what a human being can deduce from of the tiniest motion of a pair of eyes. Is he looking at me? Is he meeting my eyes? Why does he keep looking at the door? Is he preoccupied with that stone in his hand?

Culturally speaking, different groups associate different meanings with the placement of eye gaze. I find that typically in American conversation, the listener is expected to maintain eye gaze on the speaker's face, while the speaker makes direct eye contact regularly but not continuously so as not to appear too forceful. In Japan, direct eye gaze can be considered an affront. My friend Sheryl yesterday was remarking that an Asian friend of hers accompanied her to dinner with a pair of her friends who were married, and did not make eye contact with the married woman through most of the meal - something that this woman noticed and felt odd about at the time, but which was later explained as a distinct cultural gesture of politeness. In a way it makes perfect sense: why would you ogle someone else's wife? Of course, this depends on how ogling is defined in your culture...

As you move into your created worlds, it's worth giving thought to how people watch one another in different contexts. Watching for social signals is very important - but clearly people can have very strict rules about what, and when, to watch. It can also be used very well as a physical decription to break up dialogue, and description of what a person is looking at at any given time can play an important role in point of view.


  1. I saw a cool student demonstration once at a conference on lifelike characters in VR. When a VR user wanted to join a conversation already happening between other players and moved their avatar close to thsoe in conversation, the software automatically made the approacher's avatar look directly into the face of the avatar currently speaking. If the already conversing avatars wanted to keep their conversation private they wouldn't return the gaze of the avatar wanting to join them. If they welcomed the new avatar they would animate to look into its face.

    It was a cool demonstration, an attempt to use avatar body cues to facilitate social interaction. I haven't seen it used in any VR system since that demo, which was in the mid-'90's.

    Loved Cold Words, by the way.

  2. That's pretty sophisticated software, Doug! Impressive. Do you think it would have been difficult to design or maintain? I'm wondering, since you say you haven't seen it since.

  3. The software was simplified by the fact that the users had an interface that let them select whether they were trying to join a conversation or wanted to invite or ignore other avatars to join in. The face targetting would be simple.

    I just googled up the paper about the system:
    "Real-time decision making in multmodal face-to-face communication" - I'll have to use that as the title of a short story.

    The paper costs money to download but the reference and citation list is interesting. This paper was cited 6 times so it had some influence in academic VR studies.

    I'll have to ask around to see if anyone has seen it crop up in any popular VR world or game.

  4. Hey Sweetie

    First Nations culture dictates a need to look away or downcast from the person being conversed with as a sign of respect and autonomy. I have recently reworked a secondary character to be a First Nations Elder and it is endlessly fascinating to craft her dialogue which is comprised far more of posture and expression than of words - and far more telling too.

  5. Great to have you visit, Bonnie! I was in fact thinking about First Nations as I wrote the post, but since my knowledge consists of maybe a single article, I didn't want to claim expertise. This is absolutely a key issue, and influences the way First Nations kids are treated in schools (I'm sure you know that already).