Alexandra Papoutsaki, assistant professor of computer science, was awarded a $105,572 National Science Foundation (NSF) research grant to study gaze sharing to support remote work collaboration. Gaze sharing, where collaborators can see where each other’s gaze directed at on a shared screen, has been shown to have a positive effect in various visual tasks such as writing and programming.

During the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, working remotely has become, in some cases, the only way for many workplaces to continue to function. Even though research on real-time gaze sharing is still in an early stage, Papoutsaki’s study will examine its effects on enhancing remote collaboration.

Studying a person’s gaze is significant because it is a sign of human attention and intention and has a central role in workplace coordination and communication. Through eye tracking, researchers can assess eye movements to determine where a person is looking, what they are looking at and for how long they look at a screen.

Researchers like Papoutsaki have been developing tools to lessen some of the problems encountered in remote collaborations. 

Papoutsaki’s two-year study aims to better understand gaze sharing and examine previously overlooked dimensions of remote collaboration. First, she will investigate the effect of the choice of the communication channel – either audio or video-based communication that is used in conjunction to gaze sharing in the screen collaboration process. Second, she will seek to understand how the awareness of someone else’s gaze affects groups of up to six remote collaborators that go beyond the traditionally studied pairs.

Given the stay-at-home orders and the ubiquity of home-based work brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, Papoutsaki says that making investments in technology to support remote collaborations is time-sensitive and critical. Thus, she has requested additional funding to incorporate webcam eye tracking technology in applications of shared gaze awareness to support remote collaboration. 

“I hope to combine gaze sharing with my dissertational work on webcam eye tracking to lower the barriers for researchers that want to study gaze sharing in more naturalistic settings, with various pairs of remote collaborators and without the need for specialized and costly equipment,” says Papoutsaki.

Papoutsaki and her team of students will spend this summer working on suitable software for webcam eye tracking. This work will be funded by a supplemental NSF award of $16,000 specifically to support undergraduate researchers to engage with the project. The software will be made publicly available later on so that researchers and practitioners can further explore the topic.