Visual Communication Research Lab unlocks new research opportunities

Southern Utah University’s communication department has a brand-new facility for cutting-edge research methods. The Visual Communication Research Lab is a space where students study the way people interact with messages in real-time. While the VCRL’s grand opening is yet to come, communication students are already making good use of the new technology. 

The VCRL is comprised of two areas: the eye tracker lab and a new virtual reality studio. When the lab officially opens, the virtual reality studio will be available for approved research. For now, the eye tracker lab is the part of the VCRL that is currently in use by communication students. 

Technology in the eye tracker lab includes top-of-the-line Vive Pro I headsets, software designed to track eye movement and an extremely powerful computer capable of handling large amounts of data. 

Between the eye tracker room lab and the virtual reality studio is a “control room,” equipped with two-way mirrors and microphones for communicating with each half of the VCRL. This observation area is a way for students and faculty to conduct research while remaining separate from their test subjects. 

For now, the virtual reality studio is still in development. The communication department was able to acquire 360-degree treadmills and a virtual reality suit called a Teslasuit, which are used for simulating various physical sensations. The Teslasuit is also able to record motion capture data. 

“That’s why when you go to the VR studio, it’s a very pure green color,” said Lijie Zhou, an associate professor of communication who has been working to develop the VCRL. “Sometimes people’s body gestures go with the eye movement.” 

This equipment is beneficial to many areas of study, but specifically, the lab is designed to study the effectiveness of specific messages. To explain the usefulness of visual research, Zhou used a car dealership as an analogy. 

“When you go to the dealership, most of the time they will not ask you what car you want,” said Zhou. “They offer you a trial. If I’m the dealer, I want to know how you look at the different areas while you are driving.”

Matt Barton, chair of the communication department, gave some additional insight into the functionality of the new lab. 

“What it’s designed to do is to help us understand how we consume visual information,” said Barton, “and how to structure and design messages to try to lead people toward consuming them a particular way.” 

According to Barton, creating the VCRL required securing funding for the costly equipment. 

“This is several years in the making,” said Barton. “We bought a little bit at a time out of what the department could get together, and then we wrote a grant that was funded by [the Utah System of Higher Education]. We got awarded that and got a big piece of money to help with that.”

To get involved with the eye tracker portion of the lab, students can register for classes related to strategic message design or nonverbal communication. The VCRL’s grand opening ceremony is scheduled for Feb. 2, 2024. 

Story: Nick Stein 

Photos: Nick Stein

Editor: Chevy Blackburn