Enter the maze

Dragonfly AI

Hong Kong and its saliency map: Image by skeeze from Pixabay, Saliency map by DragonflyAI

What use is a computer that sees like a human? Can’t computers do better than us? Well, such a computer can predict what we will and will not see, and there is BIG money to be gained doing that!

Peter McOwan’s team at Queen Mary spent 10 years doing exploratory research understanding the way our brains really see the world, exploring illusions, inventing games to test the ideas, and creating a computer model to test their understanding. Ultimately they created a program that sees like a human (see page 4). But what practical use is a program that mirrors the oddities of the way we see the world. Surely a computer can do better than us: noticing all the things that we miss or misunderstand? Well, for starters the research opens up exciting possibilities for new applications, especially for marketeers.

A fruitful avenue to emerge is ‘visual analytics’ software: applications that predict what humans will and will not notice. Our world is full of competing demands, overloading us with information. All around us things vie to catch our attention, whether a shop window display, a road sign warning of danger or an advertising poster.

Imagine, a shop has a big new promotion designed to entice people in, but no more people enter than normal. No-one notices the display. Their attention is elsewhere. Another company runs a web ad campaign, but it has no effect, as people’s eyes are pulled elsewhere on the screen. A third company pays to have its products appear in a blockbuster film. Again, a waste of money. In surveys afterwards noone knew the products had been there. A town council puts up a new warning sign at a dangerous bend in the road but the crashes continue. These are examples of situations where predicting where people look in advance allows you to get it right. In the past this was either done by long and expensive user testing, perhaps using software that tracks where people look, or by having teams of ‘experts’ discuss what they think will happen. What if a program made the predictions in a fraction of a second beforehand? What if you could tweak things repeatedly until your important messages could not be missed.

Queen Mary’s Hamit Soyel turned the research models into a program called DragonflyAI, which does exactly that. The program analyses all kinds of imagery in real-time and predicts the places where people’s attention will, and will not, be drawn. It works whether the content is moving or not, and whether it is in the real world, completely virtual, or both. This then gives marketeers the power to predict and so influence human attention to see the things they want. The software quickly caught the attention of big, global companies like NBC Universal, GSK and Jaywing who now use the technology.

It isn’t just marketing though, ultimately to design a good experience playing a game, watching a film, browsing an e-shopping site, or in fact using any software application, requires a good understanding of where people will look, and of being able to control it. That is the way to give users a positive experience, ensuring they achieve whatever they are trying to do.

Software that can predict how our brains see the world may one day be giving us all better experiences helping us only see the things that matter to us personally.