A recent study by researchers at Clemson University used eye tracking technology to determine the viability of virtual shopping scenarios compared to constructed ones. One of the most common gripes about eye tracking studies on whether or not package design influences what consumers notice and choose to buy is the context of the eye tracking studies. Many of them are performed in labs, and participants sit in front of a computer screen and see scenes and products in a very different context than they would in an actual grocery store.
However, moving these studies to an actual store is difficult. For one, most of the commonly used eye tracking systems available are remote. In other words, the participants need to sit in front of a screen. Even mobile systems have drawbacks in a real-world setting. For one, researchers cannot control all the variables involved in a true store. Unfortunately, the cost of building and continuously stocking a physical store model within which researchers can control these variables can be expensive.
These are the issues that prompted the research team at Clemson to produce this experiment. Using Tobii Glasses, the team compared eye tracking results from 28 participants viewing either a physically constructed shelf of cereal boxes or a virtually displayed shelf of the same. The participants were asked to find one of two artificial cereal boxes among the typical brand name boxes. Researchers determined that the participants’ speed at finding the box as well as their visual behavior could be used to determine if virtual and physical shelves were comparable. After the experiment, participants were also given a questionnaire to determine whether or not they felt as though they were in a real shopping experience.
The results of the study were interesting. Not surprisingly, the physical environment demonstrated a lower number of fixations on other locations and a quicker identification time than that of the virtual environment. In the virtual environment, participants also tended to focus more on the center of the shelf than did those in the physical environment. It seems as though there were some very big differences in the way the audience perceived the virtual shelf compared to the physical one.
However, the questionnaire yielded significantly similar results. It compared four areas: involvement, immersion, sensory fidelity, and interface quality. Though the physical environment tended to rank a very small degree higher than the virtual in many of these fields, the results indicate that the virtual environment portrayed a sufficient “functional realism.”
Despite the slower identification speed, the virtual environment stands as a possible substitution for physical environments that offers a better measure of “true” consumer behavior for product research than lab studies performed before a computer screen. Better projectors and higher quality photography may advance this virtual concept even further, bringing it closer to both physical and photo realism.
Tonkin, Chip, Andrew D. Ouzts, and Andrew T. Duchowski. Eye Tracking Within the Packaging Design Workflow: Interaction with Physical and Virtual Shelves.