Research center conducts studies to improve communication
by MATT MOLINAR //Opinion Editor
As technology develops, the way we communicate evolves.
Facilities such as the Center for Communication Research at Texas Tech University are paving the way for the future of advertising, marketing, television, broadcasting and even psychology.
In the College of Media and Communication, students and faculty from a variety of disciplines now have the ability to conduct research using technology that measures reactions of a control group. There are many different devices used for measuring these reactions as participants play video games, watch TV, and even monitor social media browsing. But the center isn’t only reserved for those in the College of Media & Communication.
“Whether it be students or faculty, anyone is allowed to conduct research here,” said Dr. R. Glenn Cummins, associate dean for research in the College of Media and Communication and director of the Center for Communication Research. “The facility fosters collaborations between our college, and other units. For example, later today, I have a meeting with one of our faculty members and faculty members from the department of psychology and the department of biology who are interested in doing a collaborative project that is going to use one of our labs. It could be a study based on visual attention as a means of emotional regulation, basically looking at how we look at different pictures to help calm us down or stimulate us in other ways.”
As director of the research center, Dr. Cummins primarily provides oversight to the facilities, making sure operations are running well, keeping track of who is using which lab, troubleshooting issues the labs may encounter and making sure the labs are being used to their fullest potential.
One technology that is most impressive is the eye trackers, which use an infrared ray to track the movements of the eye as participants are focused on a single pane, such as a website or a television program. This is possible by the sensors measuring the angles of the ray as it is reflected off of the cornea. The trackers also allow researchers to detect specific X and Y coordinates corresponding with the participant’s focus point. In other words, researchers are able to see exactly what participant is looking at, allowing for the creation of accurate visual communication.
“We can measure how long a person’s gaze is in specific areas of the graphic and captures areas of interest,” Dr. Cummins said. “This is helpful in making websites and software more effective and efficient. Advertising is typically done with some kind of layout in mind, so you build it based on areas of interest. With the testing, we are able to determine whether or not that layout is effective.”
Students and faculty using the facility will agree that the research center may very well be the best in the country, based on the wide range of technologies available in the center. Most universities will typically only have one or a few methods used for electronic evaluation. According to Dr. Cummins, having every tool to conduct research is what makes the facility remarkable.
“We have two eye tracking labs, two psychophysiology labs, where things like heart rate, skin conduction and facial movements are measured, a focus group space, which is the most common way to conduct research, a dial testing or continuous response theatre, where up to 34 people come and watch some form of message and use a hand-held dial to indicate their like towards a message, and two large experiment labs where individuals are separated by partitions with headphones and a software runs the self guided study,” Dr. Cummins explained.
The facility also houses a PC gaming room, equipped with Alienware hardware. This room is used for students conducting research involving video games. Casey Smith, a graduate student majoring in electronic media and communication, is currently conducting research on the toxic behavior in videogames.
“If you’ve ever played Call of Duty, or anything similar, you know that players get upset with their own teammates if they do poorly,” Smith explains. “So I’m observing that and eventually figure out how to stop it or prevent it. There is a huge push with gaming companies having research divisions that look specifically at toxic behavior in videogames. My participants will be playing Rocket League with a confederate who absolutely sucks. A confederate is someone we train to play the game the way we would like them to, because control in research is very important. My theory is that we base our expectations of the teammates we choose based on ourselves. If they perform poorly, players will begin to berate them.”
The goal that Dr. Cummins says cuts across all of the studies conducted at the research center is to understand how people process, as well as respond to messages.
“We take a very holistic view of media and communication”, he explained. “The types of things we study may be media related and looking simply at the outcome of consuming media, or we may be looking at interpersonal communication between people in small groups.”
One of the labs in the center is an in-home simulation, or better described as a false living room. In this controlled environment, researchers are able to observe behavior that takes place in a small group, whether it be a family of four, or a group of friends. Researchers control what plays on the TV and use cameras to record reactions and information based on communication between the people in the room and between the viewer and message. “In one instance, we could have a family of two parents and a child watching a program,” Dr. Cummins explains. “If the parents are removed from that environment, how do you think the child will react to the program? Depending on the content, the child may have a different response to the content, or they may not understand and are unable to have a parent explain what is being played.” Students, faculty, and even community members are welcome to participate in research. Studies may include research done on specific groups of people within the population.
“We’ve posted ads for an experiment we’re doing, and we will be paying participants $20 to help us run a study,” Dr. Cummins said. “Some of our researchers work with parents and children. Researchers might also visit daycares, band boosters and other things like that. Others may have specific groups based on race, gender, and etcetera.” The research center comes with a long history and has been growing more and more ever since it was established. It was originally started as a telephone survey research lab.
“I would say the center has evolved considerably since that time,” Dr. Cummins said. “Really, I would chart it back to the past nine or 10 years. The center has taken on a much broader roll in the types of studies we do.”
Dr. Cummins says that the research center has become a great tool for recruiting both students, as well as faculty who visit TTU in search of jobs interested in communication and technology. “A lot of people simply don’t know about the great resource we have here at Tech,” Cummins said. “We have faculty coming in from very prestigious universities. When they see what we have here, they are blown away. They didn’t know we have this type of capacity here in Lubbock.”