Another facet of nonverbal communication I became fascinated with during my graduate studies was eye contact. Not to get too literary, but we’ve all heard some version of the saying “the eyes are the windows to your soul.” Indeed, Argyle and Cook (1976) have written the classic on this topic, Gaze and Mutual Gaze, which discusses the significance of eye contact and gaze in human interactions. They noted that eye gaze cues us in on when it is someone’s turn to speak, it creates a sense of intimacy between people, and it tells us where to focus our attention. (Just try going to a busy street with tall buildings and looking up at the top of a building. You’ll have a lot of fun seeing all the people trying to find out what you’re looking at!)
Sundaram and Webster (2000) use numerous studies to show how indispensable eye contact is in service encounters, especially in establishing trust and credibility. For example, Ketrow and Perkins (1986) found that bank customers gave higher satisfaction ratings for both the service provided and the service firm when bank tellers simply used more eye contact. Hemsely and Doob (1978) reported that frequent eye contact conveys intimacy and non-dominancy leading to increased trust, while avoiding eye contact shows dominance, unfriendliness, and emotional distance leading to distrust.
Sundaram and Webster (2000) also found that using eye contact with almost any other nonverbal cue, like head nodding, will “help enhance perceptions of trust, believability, and sincerity” (p.382). For instance, we’ve previously discussed the importance of the smile in conveying warmth, comfort, concern, caring, and friendliness, but it is even more important to couple this gesture with eye contact to show that you really mean it. In fact, they warn that greeting customers with a smile but without eye contact may have a more negative effect than if you had never greeted the customer at all!
Now that I’ve hopefully convinced you that you really want a piece of that eye gaze cake, let’s turn to the problem and solution of eye gaze in video conferencing. As I pointed out in my paper “Leveraging The Asymmetric Sensitivity of Eye Contact for Videoconferencing” (Chen 2002) many videoconferencing systems do not allow for eye contact which may also be a contributing factor to their low popularity (Gemmell (2000); Bekkering & Shim (2006)). The camera is usually stuck on top of the screen in such a position that it looks like you’re looking down on someone’s head or perhaps off to the side even though you may be looking directly at them. Neither of you really have a clue whether the other person is looking at you.
In my research, I found that people are less sensitive to eye contact when people look beneath our eyes than when they look to the left, right, or above, which suggested some simple camera maneuvering can allow for eye contact. In our solution, we suggest a visual angle between the camera and eyes of less than 5 degrees. The table below shows some example figures:
Distance between camera lens and eyes
|hand-held (PDA, cell phone)||1′||< 1″|
|desktop monitor||3′||< 3″|
|8’ wall display||8′||< 8″|
Here’s a picture of how our model looks:
As you can see, in this model there is no need to invest in any fancy equipment. You can simply bust out a ruler and some duct tape to get your camera in place, and you’ll be ready to show off a soulful, sincere gaze in no time. Remember one of the reasons people are willing to pay $250K per room for the experience of and HP Halo is because of the excellent job they do allowing people to make eye contact.
Bekkering, E. & Shim, J.P. (2006). i2i trust in videoconferencing. Communications of the ACM 49, no. 7: 103-107.
Chen, M. (2002) Leveraging the asymmetric sensitivity of eye contact for videoconferencing. In Proc. of CHI. 2002, ACM Press, pp.49-56.
Gemmell, J., Zitnick, C., Kang, T., Toyama,K. & Seitz, S. (2000). Gaze-awareness for videoconferencing: A software approach. IEEE Multimedia 7(4), pp. 26-35.
Sundaram, D.s. & Webster, C. (2000). The role of nonverbal communication in service encounters. Journal of Services Marketing 14(5), pp. 378-391.