Optical Allusion

What happens when you mix a journalist, some high-tech gear, and screen Mecca Times Square


As a native New Yorker, I experience the neon tourist farm that is Times Square in a variety of ways: as a churl, as a misanthrope, as a hater of all animate beings in my midst. Even when the urge for culture strikes me and I slip into the genteel guise of a "thee-AY-turr" attendee, I rarely hesitate to plow through the neighborhood's chorus lines of slow-walkers, Red Rover-style. What I don't do during my infrequent Times Square forays is bend to the will of the bombardment of marketing. Obviously one can't completely ignore the shiny, blinky displays that beam out from buildings and LED screens alike, but the realities of pedestrian-dodging help temper the visual din. Besides, the marketing on Times Square's many screens isn't any different from or more memorable than the marketing on my TV, computer or smartphone display: It's just amplified visually.

So I took it as almost a personal affront when my editor asked if I wanted to test my I-am-impervious-to-advertising-and-probably-bullets theories in Times Square. The idea was to hook me up to eye-tracking technology, developed by Ball State University's Center for Media Design. The technology - a set of glasses equipped with two cameras, one facing straight ahead and the other focused on my eyes, jury-rigged to a video recorder - would gauge which ads registered with me and which didn't, whether I realized it or not.

Its technical name is the Mobile Eye. Manufactured by Applied Science Laboratories (ASL), the system consists of the aforementioned glasses and a turbo-modified Sony GV-D1000 digital video recorder. As Ball State grad student Ryan Carney tells it, "ASL simply - I use that term lightly - attached a device to the side [of the recorder] that accepts the camera signal from the goggles and somehow puts it in a format acceptable to the video recorder." In turn, the recorder captures both video streams: the one from the straight-ahead camera and the one from the eye-focused camera. From there, the system overlays them and its software identifies any or all areas that my eyes gazed upon. So yeah, Carney had only slightly more of a clue as to how the glasses-doohickey worked than I did.

Nonetheless, he gave me a few tips in advance of our Times Square walkabout. Contact lenses were a must - my prescription glasses beneath the techno-goggles would render the measurements inaccurate and me a supernerd - and the shade offered by the bill of a baseball cap would enhance the accuracy of the tracking. It saddened me that I'd more closely resemble the average video game shut-in than Robocop.

Duly clad and maintained, I arrived in Times Square on the first temperate afternoon of 2011 with no small trepidation. Our crew - me, Carney, a photographer and a MediaPost photographer-wrangler - met at the Hard Rock Café (under its glowing sign, natch). After a quick series of introductions, Carney pulled out the Pulp Fiction-like briefcase that housed the glasses and recorder. Hooking them up proved a breeze. The glasses sat easily on the base of my nose and a snug tote kept the four-pound video recorder pressed against the small of my back. Carney took much delight in attaching the latter: "Bet you thought you'd never have to wear a fanny pack again, huh?" We then paused for 20 minutes while I negotiated a clause into my contract that this unfortunate accessorizing would not be depicted visually.

Amazingly, given the unapologetic gawkism that pervades Times Square, nobody stared, not even when we conducted a calibration test. This required me to gaze from several different angles (head to the left, head up, head down, etc.) at a black dot scribbled on a white piece of paper, held about 10 feet away. Properly calibrating the glasses was key to the assignment; if done inaccurately, the eye movement-time measurements wouldn't work.

As for those eye movement times, Carney outlined why they matter. "It's 0.2 seconds for a 'fixation,' which is the minimum threshold for cognition. Anything less - i.e., 0.19 seconds or fewer - is considered a 'gaze.' Essentially, you see it but it doesn't really register in your brain." That sound you just heard was Olive Garden's marketers sighing sadly.

I was similarly surprised when our crew started to make its way through the streets. I expected that donning the glasses would give rise to the vertiginous sensation often associated with unfamiliar, extraneous eyewear. I anticipated stumbling around Times Square like a college kid in a marathon game of duck-duck-goose after five beers - not that I'd know what that feels like. Instead, beyond the slight difference in heft between the Mobile Eye glasses and my own, the process felt natural or as natural as any trot through a pulsating, densely populated urbanosphere can feel. Starting at Times Square's southernmost tip, we slowly proceeded northward, stopping occasionally to snap action shots. The photographic evidence, shared on these fine pages, suggests that I am the Michael Jordan of looking at things while standing still.

What jumped out at me was the difficulty of taking it all in. As I walked, I was supposed to be making a conscious effort to remember the screens and messages that caught my eye. Instead, I found myself pinballing between disruptions and distractions. My attempt to watch a clip from Rango was crashed by a street hawker pushing discounted tickets to American Idiot; my careful perusal of the ESPN sports ticker was interrupted by a garbage can that had the poor manners to jump directly in my path. No matter where I glanced, another screen beckoned. The overall effect was hypnotic.

Our journey proceeded apace, past Nissan, LG Electronics and Prudential, with photo pit stops in front of JVC's 3-D globe and the wow-man pink-flashing-arrow psychedelia touting Gray Line's ticket booth. I gazed upon static ads for shirts (Van Heusen), soda (Pepsi Max) and shimmery ones for retrofunnies (TV Land) and riffs (Thin Lizzy, for its rockin'-like-it's-1976 gig at the nearby Best Buy Theater). I gazed upon Best Buy itself during a stop to test the Mobile Eye system on the retailer's myriad screens of all shapes and sizes (verdict: blurry).

But the most interesting and enveloping environment was Times Square, so we redeployed for a second run up, down and around its passageways. I picked up a few things I'd missed, notably major-league displays for Aeropostale and someone or something called "The Knowledge Effect." I learned later that this is the centerpiece of a Thomson Reuters campaign, stressing that "the right information in the right hands leads to amazing things." So maybe we should all chip in to buy President Obama an electric car, or something.

At the northernmost tip of Times Square, our crew decided to call it an afternoon. I removed the Mobile Eye gear, freeing my face from the light pinch of the glasses and my fanny from the stylistic tyranny of the pack. I headed home lightheaded, as much from the return to my usual unplugged calibration as from the hours-long march through the 'hood. Now came the fun part: determining whether my impressions of the screen-aware trek lined up with the Mobile Eye measurements.

When the video footage arrived, I was able to answer this question with a definitive "sort of!" It's fascinating to watch, with a shaky red crosshairs framing the images upon which my eyes fixated. It's somewhat less fascinating to hear, thanks to a one-way commentary track in which I unleash ferociously intelligent exposition like "Jury duty, I understand - it comes with being a citizen and everything. At the same time? Eh."

Anyway, as Carney had predicted, I didn't necessarily see what I thought I saw, and vice versa. During the walks through Times Square, my eyes kept shifting back to the enormous screens that loom over the northern and southern borders of Times Square. As I suspected, they spent an exorbitant amount of time fixating on the ESPN ticker; as I wouldn't have guessed, they spent even more absorbing the colorful, briskly deployed content on the M&Ms and Coca-Cola displays. This goes a long way toward explaining my chocolate-and-caffeine dinner feast later that evening.

Watching the footage, I almost felt as if I were reliving somebody else's Times Square adventure. In rough order, here are the other screens and signs that registered far more than I thought they did: Sweet Leaf Tea (hey, I was thirsty); an electronic Bank of America marquee (this triggered an overdue bill reminder); a guy who fell and bumped his head, requiring medical attention (perhaps I'm not a misanthrope after all); pretty much everything involving beer (with an emphasis on Michelob, depressingly); the Walgreen's logo (your guess is as good as mine); and a tourist with a funny hat. I'm a twitchy little fella, it seems.

In retrospect, the experiment proved a success. I learned a little something, both about marketing and my witting and unwitting reactions thereto. I managed to avoid tripping over the curb. I didn't over-gaze at passing female pedestrians, the American Eagle underwear models or the Forever 21 spots. Hooray! I'm not a perv! While I still hold that the net effect of being slammed by so many messages simultaneously is to remember none of them, the messages seem to be registering on a subconscious level. So while my conscious brain may say "nuh-uh," my semiconscious one is wondering about this OPI Nail Lacquer that it's hearing so much about. It appears that my brain works. Big-screen advertising, too. Nice work, Times Square marketers.

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