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Michigan State University M.I.N.D. Labs Measure Telepresence with Morae


Every year, millions of Americans sit in movie theaters totally immersed -- the comfortable seats, dark room, and the big screen help viewers forget where they are so they can become absorbed in the moment. At Michigan State University’s Media Interface and Network Design (M.I.N.D.) Lab, researchers are studying the psychological variables, and their physiological signatures, that lead to this sense of telepresence -- the feeling of being in the time and place depicted by the medium.

The Research Challenge

The M.I.N.D. Labs are a networked consortium of eleven labs located in universities throughout the United States and Europe. The labs conduct research in human-computer interaction, communication, and virtual environment design. A fundamental barrier to the type of experimental research the lab conducts is how to synchronize all the moving video elements, gather the psychological and physiological data, boil it down, analyze it quickly, and then deliver the results in a meaningful way.

Solution: TechSmith's Morae

The MSU team had been using Camtasia Studio software from TechSmith to record online learning materials, including participant interaction with the learning materials. When TechSmith released Morae for user experience research, the M.I.N.D. Lab team became one of the first customers to deploy the software in a research environment. A major benefit of Morae is its ability to capture and record many different participant events, such as mouse clicks, page changes, error messages, multimedia, audio, and facial expressions. Instead of being overloaded by data, Morae makes it possible for the team to find intended points of interest quickly and efficiently as well as unintended points of interest that weren’t included in the original test criteria. Researchers can mark those points and come back to them later for analysis without having to retest the participants.

Immersive Media and A Roller Coaster Ride

In addition to using Morae in the labs, graduate students use it to conduct their own research as part of the university’s Media Communication and Mind course. The students in this class get to dream up their own studies. One of these studies focused on the effect a life-size display had on the sense of presence.

Several points of interest were defined – what happens just before the participant gets to the big hill, the apex of the big hill, and what happens after the big hill when the rider starts going down. A typical ride lasted three minutes and each participant rode four different roller coasters in each setting.

Morae Expands Media Effects Research

The traditional way of measuring telepresence is to give the participant a survey at the end of the study, but it’s not real-time and relies on subjective memory. During the roller coaster ride, the participant was hooked up to the physiological recording devices, which require millisecond timing accuracy to link media events and physical responses – especially for brain activity which happens at an extremely fast rate. To capture these events, the team must be able to synchronize the response with the stimulus. This is where Morae comes in. The team goes back through the Morae recording frame by frame, picks the point of interest, places a digital marker, and gets the time stamp. They then sync it with the physiological recording, which is conducted by its own software.

The team can now accurately locate the points of interest (e.g., the top of the hill) and the physiological responses such as changes in heart rate or the onset of specific brainwave patterns. With Morae, the team now has a new way of analyzing media effects accurately and objectively. Without Morae, the lab wouldn’t be able to conduct this type of research because the burden of gathering, finding, and observing specific events in such detail would be overwhelming. Using Morae, they can search for the most specific events. The team frequently goes into experiments with only three or four questions, but in the course of watching the experiment, they discover other potentially interesting events and questions. Since Morae has already captured all the data they might need, they don’t have to go back and do another experiment.

Research Results

Ultimately, the M.I.N.D. Labs team wants to understand telepresence and what variables affect the sense of presence. Physical immersion is the basic point they are after. The M.I.N.D. Lab team hopes to make claims about the effects of presence, but also about the best way to measure presence. The studies and their approach to measuring them appear to be promising. Morae has become an integral part of the M.I.N.D. Lab’s research because it greatly reduces the burden of collecting large volumes of data. An additional benefit of using Morae has been the creation of a library of digital video from each study allowing easy historical review and cross-study comparisons.

In our research on media effects, the M.I.N.D. Lab collects vast amounts of data, including video of media and user, along with several behavioral and physiological measures. Morae makes it easy to index and search points of interest, to synchronize co-occurring events with great precision, and to mine the data for interesting patterns. This work would be prohibitively labor-intensive without Morae.

- Dr. Corey Bohil,
Manager, M.I.N.D. Labs, Michigan State University