Enter the maze

An eye for design

an eye surrounded by 1s and 0s

It’s one thing to have good taste in clothes, but imagine being your own designer too. Wouldn’t it be great to wear your own creations in real life? Imagine being able to buy a t-shirt made to match your own unique preferences. Or a product designed simply by observing the way you move your eyes while looking at a few alternatives. To understand how such designs might be created, says Tim Holmes of Royal Holloway, University of London, we need to go back 150 years to one of the most significant theories in scientific history.

A little bit of history

Charles Darwin’s idea of "survival of the fittest" explains how highly specialised animals such as giraffes evolved. For example, those with the longest necks might be able to reach more food and so they survived to pass this trait onto the next generation through their genes. In the 1970s computer scientist John Holland devised a computer program which used this idea to solve complex mathematical problems, by representing possible solutions using artificial genes and then recombining the best solutions to give even better ones. Holland’s idea became known as a 'genetic algorithm', and today they are used in everything from web-browsers to package design. Just as Darwin observed in nature, genetic algorithms are all driven by an ability to measure the fitness of a possible solution: how good something is at doing the job we need it for.

Mutant fashion

Some researchers at Yonsei University in South Korea have used exactly this strategy to help people design their own clothes. Let’s pretend you’re designing a shirt. Here’s how the South Koreans’ system would work on it: it starts by dividing the design into basic elements, like sleeves, cuffs and collar. To begin, the system chooses a few combinations and shows them to you. Your job is to rate the designs you like the best. That’s when the genetic combination gets going. When organisms mate with one another, they mix their genetic material together and their children end up with a combination of their parents’ traits. This program takes the shirt designs you like best and…well, pairs them off just like parents. Your favourite designs get their genetic material mixed up and the system creates a new generation of shirts for you, from which to choose the ones you like best. After going through a few generations, you should have a group of designs that are all a little different from one another, but are all the kind of thing you would actually wear. Ta-da! You can then choose the one you like best, and get your newly-designed shirt made up for you.

There is an eye in "fitness"!

Designers aren’t the only ones concerned with using fitness – marketing companies want to make sure their products will attract people, so they make sure to test how desirable they are. One of the techniques they use is to observe the eye movements we make while looking at their product, using an eye-tracker. Eye-trackers use reflected infrared light to measure the movements of your eyes. The ones marketers use can be attached to glasses that test subjects wear while shopping, but even the webcam built in to your computer could be used as a basic eye-tracker.

Snack time

In an experiment, researchers at Royal Holloway, University of London presented subjects with a variety of different images ranging from coloured shapes to mobile phones to find out exactly how eye movements correspond with their preferences. Once the eye-tracker could tell which images they liked, the researchers developed an evolutionary algorithm to manipulate designs right before the subjects’ eyes, so they gradually evolved to match each person’s preferences. The researchers tested their new algorithm by, among other things, getting subjects to design packages for fictitious new flavours of Pringles. The subjects were not told to look for their favourite design, but to allow the computer to ‘read their minds’ through their eye movements.

Can you read my mind?

Gaze-driven design can join the growing family of ‘neuromarketing’ techniques, so called because their inputs come directly from the brain rather than interviewing customers. The idea that our unconscious responses to images might be used to sell us products might appear a little sinister, but there could be equally positive applications for such techniques. If we can indentify the images that induce cravings for cigarettes, for example, then presumably we can also identify images for warning labels which will make cigarettes less appealing. Do you think such person-centred design for anything from clothing to wallpaper presents an opportunity for increased self-expression or simply facilitates consumer exploitation? Whatever your answer, the next time you are out shopping for something to wear, think about where you are looking, because the designs could soon be the results of your eye movements rather than the other way round.