“Looking This Way and That, and Learning to Adapt to the World”

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The Story

“Looking This Way and That, and Learning to Adapt to the World”
by Charles Choi
The New York Times, August 16, 2010

The Pitch

[Choi notes: The pitch on this piece for the Times was much shorter than my pitch on Siberian mummies, and is of the usual length of my pitches for them now. I figure you want about four paragraphs of story to start with, to show that you have storytelling chops and that there’s an article worth investigating there. I then give a paragraph explicitly selling why this story works for readers. The two paragraphs after the asterisk are replies to the editor on questions as to how timely this research is, what has been published on it, and unique scientific findings associated with the work.]

The infants look like cyborgs as they toddle around the playpen of this NYU lab. The cameras strapped onto their heads point both at what they are looking at and at their eyes, wirelessly transmitting video to nearby computers.

The aim of the experiments here, which have children 14 months and up crawling and walking up and down adjustable cliffs, slopes, gaps and steps, is to literally discover how we learn to see the world — where their eyes go as they figure out where to put their feet, how they navigate obstacles, how they use their gaze to coordinate objects they are manipulating with their hands, when and how often they look at their mothers’ faces, how they change their motions and gaze if they are, for instance, put in Teflon-coated shoes.

Eye-tracking studies have existed for years now, but this is the first time an eye-tracker has been made portable enough for infants to wear (technology originally developed, incidentally, with funding from the Office of Naval Research). This allows these children to move away from studies awkwardly restricted to tabletops to naturally interact with the real world, with what they do or don’t want to explore, with people in social interactions.

People are used to vision being something that just passively happens, but in reality it is very active in nature, as we choose what we look at — we make some 150,000 eye movements daily that we are simply not conscious of anymore. Vision is often the primary way we learn and is an activity fundamental to many other behaviors — although there have been a lot of studies that have explored how vision works, this new research could help unlock how we use what we see.
So I think this research from developmental psychologist Karen Adolph’s lab at NYU could make for a fun story. It’s got babies, it’s got high technology, it’s got unusual experiments, and it could yield new insights into vision and development. The researchers have a lot of fun videos that could form part of a multimedia package, and the fact they’re in the city makes it easy for NYT photographers and videographers to go down and capture the babies during experiments.

Best — C.


The researchers did present a paper at the 2010 Symposium on Eye Tracking Research & Applications in Austin in March. Other than that, nothing, and this work on children hasn’t gotten any play yet. (I have written a story on mobile eye-trackers for Scientific American, which is how I found out about this, but that story deals with adults [specifically, geologists], and doesn’t mention this work at all.)

In terms of preliminary findings, they found infants did not need to focus on obstacles during walking about a quarter of the time. Adults only fixate on obstacles about a third of the time and 4- to 8-year-old children fixate obstacles about 60 percent of the time, but it’s a bit remarkable that infants can do it at all. Also, they found infants most often guided manual actions using continual visual feedback, monitoring closely as their hands approached and contacted objects. This sheds light on how infants learn to develop fine motor skills.

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