What my subconscious saw at the Detroit show

Automotive News reporter Vince Bond Jr. gets a charge out of the GT at the Ford exhibit last month at the Detroit auto show.

DETROIT — Nielsen is much more than a TV ratings stalwart these days.

As I walked through the Ford exhibit at the Detroit auto show last month, experts at a division of the company called Nielsen Consumer Neuroscience had me outfitted with biometric sensors and a pair of glasses that tracked the movement of my eyes as they darted around the environment until locking in on the GT.

The Nielsen team was there to measure my physiological responses to these and other vehicles, the first time the company had applied these methods in an auto show setting.

While Nielsen has traditionally used neuroscience technology to help brands gauge how well advertising resonates with consumers at a non-conscious level, the company is looking to expand into new areas. The technology has been tested during car clinics where people provide insights on new vehicles after looking at full-scale models or 2D or 3D renderings, and it also has potential uses in distracted-driving experiments to measure attention levels, said Carl Marci, chief neuroscientist of Nielsen Consumer Neuroscience.

The eye-tracking glasses picked up a clear viewing pattern early on with the GT that would continue throughout the day: I’m drawn to the front of vehicles.

With the GT, my eyes consistently zipped back and forth between the front lights and wheels as I took in the contours in that area. The front of a vehicle — the grille in particular — is where designers send their boldest messages, so I tend to assign a lot of value there when determining whether a car looks good.

Bond was wearing biometric sensors and glasses that tracked his eye movement as he toured the auto show floor. With him is Carl Marci, chief neuroscientist at Nielsen Consumer Neuroscience.

The tech

Marci and I trekked to several more displays, including Acura, Chevrolet and Lexus. The Acura MDX, Chevy Cruze and Lexus LC 500 were among the viewing subjects.

The equipment I wore was tasked with measuring the inner reactions that may not “bubble up” to my conscious, Marci explained. After I looked at a vehicle, Marci checked in to get my thoughts and help interpret the physiological data that was being collected.

The eye-tracking glasses used an infrared camera trained on my retina. Another set of cameras in the glasses precisely captured what I was looking at. On a recording of the session, a small circle indicated where my eyes were focused.

When I first put on the glasses in the exhibit hall and began taking in the environment, the recording showed that my eyes seemed to frantically jump around to each display. I ignored the spectators and homed in on the vehicles from a distance. Marci said this constant eye scanning is normal.

“What our eyes naturally do is they find a point and fixate, move to another point and fixate and they’re always scanning. It’s kind of like a dance,” Marci said. “A fixation is when it pauses, and that’s about 50 milliseconds, so that’s the minimum [time] we have to pause for our brains to take in information.”

I was also wired with sensors on my fingers, wrist and chest to measure my heart rate and the electrical conductivity of my skin, known as galvanic skin response, or GSR — a way into the brain’s emotional centers to reveal interest levels, Marci said.

Interest spikes

When I was gazing at the GT, the midengine provoked the greatest skin response. I had seen the car a few times in person, but this was my first opportunity to get a good look at the engine without battling a sea of spectators.

The GT’s deep contours also commanded my attention.

Amazing as I think it is, the rear of the GT didn’t generate the same GSR as the front and engine.

A similar thing happened with the LC 500, which is probably the most aggressive design in Lexus’ history.

The LC 500’s attitude-laden grille paired with the strong lines on the hood was a winning combination that caused a spike in my GSR.

My viewing patterns shifted dramatically when I took in the straightforward Chevy Cruze and Toyota Corolla, which produced a muted response. The two economy cars obviously weren’t designed to push visual boundaries.

My largest GSR bump for the Cruze happened when I examined the interior, which was more refined than I expected.

For the Corolla, the largest electrical spike occurred in a moment of surprise when I realized what model I was looking at. I guess the latest Corolla looked better than I anticipated.

If a team of designers had orders to indulge my preferences, their mandate would be clear: Think aerodynamic contours with front lights that wrap around to the side of the vehicle. Then match that with an aggressive grille and big wheels. So, basically, sporty halo cars such as the GT, Acura NSX or McLaren P1 that I can’t afford.

If an automaker had done a regular survey with me, it probably wouldn’t have gotten my true feelings on what I saw.

It’s not that people lie in their survey responses, Marci said, it’s just that they don’t have access to those non-conscious reactions.

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