Walk into a room and the mind immediately begins to note its characteristics. As the eyes scan the objects before them, they register the quality of light, color, texture, contrast, arrangement, what is familiar and what is unfamiliar.

In a matter of seconds, the brain processes all that information and generates an emotional reaction to the space. Shortly thereafter, it might render an aesthetic judgment as well. Without even being aware, we immediately get a feeling of whether we like being in that space or not.

What happens in those few seconds, where do the eyes go, and how might our understanding of that process help improve the way spaces are designed in the future? Those are questions researchers hope to answer using eye tracking technology.

The use of eye tracking technology, which employs sensors to determine where a person is looking and how the eye responds to what it is looking at, has grown considerably in recent years as it has become more readily available commercially. In addition to its application for research in fields such as medicine, physiology and psychology, it also is used in marketing and product development to study consumer response to designs and advertising.

By measuring the eye’s movement and neural reactions, eye tracking technology can reveal quite a lot about how the eye perceives and responds to what it sees.

Several of these operations are particularly relevant to interior design. By noting what objects or areas of the space the eye fixates on, researchers can assess the subject’s engagement with the space. Similarly, marking the amount of time the eye dwells on a particular object or area reveals where the subject’s attention is more often drawn, which has implications for retail, hospitality, education, healthcare and other environments.

Studies have demonstrated a link between the reaction of the pupil of the eye and the subject’s emotional response to what they see. The pupil widens when the subject is positively aroused by visual stimulus and narrows when it is not. Other studies show that when subjects return to particular features of a space and linger there to gaze awhile there is a strong correlation to whether they prefer to remain in the space and their decision-making (for example, whether they decide to make a purchase, have a meal or drink, book a room, etc.).

Researchers in architecture and design have begun using eye tracking technology as a means of providing more quantitative data to substantiate the efficacy of some interior design solutions as opposed to others. Although in its early stages, by combining eye tracking technology with qualitative data gathered from subjects’ responses, such research so far has found that in most cases the eye tracking technology reliably corresponds with subjects’ own comments on whether they felt good about as space and the features they liked or didn’t like.

A team of researchers in Poland used eye tracking technology to evaluate subjects’ emotional response to possible scenarios for rooms in a healthcare facility, one designed for rest and relaxation and another designed for work and study.

They found that the architectural configuration of the space, the choice of colors and furniture arrangement affected whether the subjects felt welcome, comfortable and secure in a given space, but lighting configurations had no impact. In this case, rooms with a moderate rather than high ceiling, neutral colors and freely arranged furnishings were preferred by most subjects.

A pair of South Korean researchers were interested in how a multi-sensory environment might affect subjects’ perception of a retail space. They had subjects record their emotional and aesthetic responses to a rendering of a cafe interior while listening to either slow tempo jazz music or fast-tempo dance music.

They also used eye tracking technology to record their fixation, dwell time and gaze movements. They found that the different types of music did have some effect on subjects’ levels of concentration, amount of time they lingered, and where their attention was directed, with faster tempo music stimulating faster shifts in eye movement.

Researchers from interior design departments in the U.S. and South Korea employed eye tracking technology to investigate the collective emotional, cognitive and behavioral effect created by combinations of colors applied to a space, in this case a 3D-rendered retail space.

Their findings showed dark colors were perceived as more luxurious, especially when applied to the floor and walls of a large space. Also, appropriate use of contrasting colors induced preference to stay, whereas monochrome or drastically contrasting spaces were not appealing.

Because eye tracking technology requires a computer or similar device to record, store and analyze the data provided by the sensor, all of these studies involved computer renderings of spaces. However, as the technology develops, researchers expect they will be able to conduct studies in actual spaces and thus provide a useful tool to help quantify and evaluate user response in order to better create spaces that fulfill their purpose and meet occupants’ cognitive and emotional needs and preferences.