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It takes more time to blink than it does to form a first impression.
And a new research lab at Utah Valley University will capture those blink-of-an-eye reactions to determine whether marketing messages are hitting home or falling flat.
The lab's high-tech tools paid for with $2 million in grants from Utah-based energy company Vivint could garner national attention and save advertisers millions of dollars, contends Smart Lab Director Dale Jolley.
"This is really Star Wars-ish. This is exciting stuff to see," Jolley said.
This semester, student researchers already are using the eyeball-scanning sensors and emotion-reading technology. The lab is paid for in part with a $1 million donation from Vivint, plus another $1 million from founder Todd Pedersen. Research classes and lab jobs are open to students at all levels.
"It puts these students at the cutting edge of marketing research," said Paul Dishman, the center's executive director and chairman of the UVU marketing department.
Advertisers may know whether you choose Coke over Pepsi, he says. The center aims to help them pinpoint why by detecting where a message may go astray: Does the commercial fail to draw your eye to the logo? Does the cola-touting starlet make your skin crawl?
Nationally, at least a handful of such "smart labs" are conducting studies related to advertising, general health, law enforcement and psychology. The Utah County university's lab designers turned to a market research center at the University of Akron for ideas about setting up the center.
In the lab, students manipulate tools to trace a viewer's gaze and measure other physical responses. But they can also track emotional reactions, such as general mood or whether someone's heartbeat quickens. The equipment provides deeper-than-usual insight into what a person's brain is doing at a certain moment, the lab directors said.
As president of Analysis Solutions, Tom Englund oversees Tobii, the company that makes the sight-tracing devices. Research programs like UVU's, he said in a statement, help "fill the growing industry need for eye-tracking expertise" across industries.
Vivint President Alex Dunn said in a prepared statement. "We're excited that this is the beginning of a very long-term partnership between Vivint and the university."
For advertising executives and others seeking UVU's help, the service isn't cheap. Basic focus group studies cost about $5,000 each. For eye-tracking research, that pricetag could jump to $20,000 or higher. Even so, many company executives including those from Vivint believe marketing research could save them from pouring millions into a campaign that simply wouldn't work, said David Jorgensen, a 25-year-old graduate student researcher.
"Businesses are very focused on having the numbers, the statistics and having some hard facts to go off of," he said. "This is a great opportunity to get our name out there as a state and as a college and university."
Officials expect the program to attract more students like Jorgensen, to the university.
"There's no doubt that we're getting a lot more students through our doors saying, this is really cool man, and I want to be a part of it," Dishman said.
One such student is Josh Groves, a 25-year-old senior marketing major who works at the lab.
"We have some really cool stuff going on here," said Groves, who favors the eyeball-tracing equipment.
A wearable $15,000 version looks like eye glasses. Another stapler-sized infrared sensor costs $200 and traces the retina from the lower edge of a computer screen.
"When I start explaining where I work," he said, "it makes me sound a lot cooler than I actually am."