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Eye-tracking glasses reveal what master pianists look at while they play

Why it matters to you

Eye-tracking technology can be a useful research and teaching tool, as this video comparing an expert and student piano player makes clear.

Ever wanted to experience what it is like to be a master pianist tickling the ivories? A new video gives a sense of what that might feel like, while also demonstrating a few fundamental differences between a true master and a very good student.

The video is an experiment using a pair of wearable eye-tracking glasses made by Tobii Pro, the global leader in eye-tracking research. Entitled “What Does a Pianist See?” it’s the first episode in a new online video series designed to show how the technology — that is able to show exactly where people are looking when they perform actions — can be used as a training (or learning) tool.

“The big difference we found with the expert pianist is that they stay looking in the center,” Patrick Adelman, co-founder of the video maker Fractal Media, told Digital Trends. “They don’t need to look at where their fingers are moving all the time. On the other hand, the student’s eyes constantly go all over the keyboard to find where her fingers needed to go. The same is true when you look at how they read sheet music and whether or not they need to keep looking at the music, then down at the keyboard.”

Breaking that down in terms of figures, the expert pianist spent approximately 83 percent of the time looking at sheet music, compared to the “novice” who spent 58 percent of the time looking at the music. The expert also scanned ahead vertically and horizontally, meaning that they were able to mentally stay a few steps ahead.

Piano playing is not the only use-case made possible by Tobii Pro’s eye-tracking wearable, of course.

“This product is really the first time that it’s been possible to take eye-tracking technology out of the lab and into real contexts,” Mike Bartels, U.S. Research Director for Tobii Pro, told Digital Trends. “Because of that, we’re seeing a lot of interest in fields like sports research. You can’t tell much about how a basketball player shoots free throws if they’re sitting in a laboratory; you have to have them actually on the court. Other applications include media research, where traditionally you’d have to bring people to a research facility to study how they pay attention to adverts, for example. Now we can send this technology home with people, so they can wear it while they’re going about their daily lives. If you want to capture natural behavior, you have to allow people to be in natural contexts, rather than being tested in a lab.”

Whether eye-tracking glasses eventually become mainstream technology remains to be seen, but it’s certainly a fascinating demonstration of how tech can reveal valuable insights about a range of disciplines.

Now if you will excuse us, we have some piano practice to get back to!