Wearable eye tracking and ethnographic field methods

Wearable eye tracking was used in an innovative ethnographic study by Stiftung Lesen (German Reading Association) in order to understand how young people function in today's media-driven society.

Reading behavior and media consumption study

Stiftung Lesen (the German Reading Foundation) worked with Tobii Pro Insight Research Services to develop an ethnographic pilot study of young peoples' reading behavior and media usage using Pro Glasses 2. Check out the video below.


Stiftung Lesen, a non-profit organization based in Mainz, Germany, is committed to promoting reading and literacy. Their team has been tasked with conducting research on the use of media, reading, and reading socialization. This caused their researchers to become interested in eye tracking in an ethnographical field strategy context.

Ethnographic field methods have become increasingly popular in social science as a means to gather in-depth insight into human behavior and cultural phenomena. These research techniques involve observing people in their natural setting rather than in an artificial lab environment. The aim is to understand how people live, what they do, how they use things, and what their needs are. As with all behavioral research, the aim is to capture the most authentic behavior.

Eye tracking provides insight into how people perceive the world around them and has been used in this context before. However, in the past, the available technology required the presence of someone with experience for data collection and technical support.

Tobii Pro Glasses 2 has changed this typical study scenario. The wearable eye tracker enables subjects to autonomously collect visual behavior data in any environment. They are easy to use and subjects are able to record for long periods of time without interruption, so a facilitator is not needed. Pro Glasses 2 feel and look almost like a typical pair of glasses, which means they do not inhibit natural behavior.

The use of eye tracking opens up the possibility to measure authentic behavior from the point of view of the subject.

Dr. Simone C. Ehmig, the leader of Stiftung Lesen’s Institue for Reading and Media Research

Research questions

The goal of the reading foundation's study was to explore new methods for research in the field of reading behavior and media consumption. Also, the researchers wanted to understand how young adults use written language in their everyday lives, including reading, writing, media usage, and active participation in online media.

Research questions were defined as follows:

  • When, on what media, how often, and what are subjects reading every day?
  • How often, when, and what are subjects writing every day?
  • How often, when, and what are subjects using media for daily? What types of media are being used?
  • How is digital media used to actively interact with others? What is the relationship between passive consumption and active presentation?

Autonomous collection of data in everyday life

A sample of four adults in Frankfurt, ages 18 to 24, were selected for the study. The full implication of the research was explained to make sure they were comfortable with the study scenario.

The subjects were all equipped with Tobii Pro Glasses 2 and instructed in their use. The directions were for the participant to wear the eye tracker as much as possible over a two-day time span and perform daily activities as they normally would. Subjects were also asked to maintain their own research protocol, taking notes to accompany the gaze data.

After this, the subjects wore Pro Glasses 2 everywhere they went. They were in typical, everyday scenarios with work colleagues, their family, on their own, or in a group of friends. In total, 28 hours of video were recorded with the wearable eye tracker, including one portion that was close to two hours of uninterrupted data.

On the subjects' return two days later, they participated in a group discussion about their experiences using Pro Glasses 2.

Insight from the subjects’ point of view

Tobii Pro Insight Research Services went through all of the participants' eye tracking material, exporting relevant sequences with gaze data overlaid and sorting these into categories like reading, writing, media usage, and active participation thorough online media. High-level statistics were also extracted in order to provide an overview of the subjects' attention to different media formats such as phones, tablets, computers, TV, printed materials, as well as outdoor advertisements and street signs.

A chart illustrating average participant's media attention pattern during the ethnographic study run by Stiftung Lesen.

With this data from the Pro Insight team, Stiftung Lesen then hosted a series of workshops where students interpreted and reflected upon the gaze replay videos from different angles. A number of hypotheses were formulated from these discussions, to be investigated further in the future. The work was first presented at the DIVSI Convention 2015.

Future work

The pilot study is the first step in a greater project by Stiftung Lesen to explore and establish new ethnographic field strategies for future research into reading and media consumption. Their researchers plan to develop systematic procedures for the collection and deep analysis of this type of data.