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Eye Contact

Eye contact occurs when two animals look at each other's eyes at the same time. In human beings, eye contact is a form of nonverbal communication and is thought to have a huge influence on social behavior. That is why we have such a beautiful profession: we don’t want to hide these beautiful eyes and the prime reason for eye contact between a pair of (reflecting) windows (glasses).

The topic of eye contact ties in with a column in the previous edition of Global Contact: “Yes We(b)cam,” in which it was stated that “We need a lockdown in our secluded habitats to realise what is – or was – happening out there.” In this case: eye contact. An excellent article in a Dutch newspaper (NRC-handelsblad) by Marc Hijink pointed at a different form of eye contact than the one we typically use in our business of contact lenses. I quote here jauntily from that article. Using ZOOM or Teams for videoconferencing consumes a lot of our energy. Amongst other things, our brains are not trained to consume the overdoses of eye contact, the journalist writes. There are, however, a couple of simple suggestions to potentially deal with this better.

Video Conferencing Fatigue

The article starts with the fun fact that if there is an abbreviation for something, then it is a serious matter. Stratford University in the US coined the term VCF: Video Conferencing Fatigue. “Our brain has serious problems with an overdose of unnatural eye contact,” says Jeremy Bailenson, professor of communication at Stanford University and founding director of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab. During a physical meeting of, let’s say, 10 people, we talk, make notes or simply stare away. The time spent actually looking each other in the eye is limited. But with video conferencing, there is almost constantly eye contact and barely an escape option. Or actually, we don’t look each other straight in the eye, but slightly adjacent to it. The camera is usually above or next to the computer screen. Some people cautiously look into the camera, others look at other participants. But most people do something ‘in between’. That feels unnatural and is tiring. And it is hard work to do it right: if the camera is too low, you look down on people. If the camera is too high, it looks submissive to some degree. But the worst part: everybody is imprisoned by the system; you can’t get out, and also, everybody is very much aware of their own image.

Gallery View

Designers of platforms such as Microsoft Teams and ZOOM are experimenting with different view scenarios. The standard ‘gallery view’ may have had its time. New techniques use the same technology to change the background, to actually place these ‘faces’ in a new, desired environment. Like, for instance, a coffeeshop (not the one we have in Amsterdam here, but one in which they actually serve just coffee), or even a bar – for more informal chatting. But then the standard gallery view is surely due for improvement, and replacement.

The order of the ‘gallery’ is another thing that may be due for an upgrade. First: why does every participant see a different order? This may be confusing at best, but also changes the dynamics and point of view (literally) for each participant. In ZOOM, you get a higher ‘ranking’ if you login early (but you lose this as soon as you turn your camera off). New algorithms are being designed to decide who gets placed where. Until then, it is a manual game.

Tips

What can we do in the meantime? The article to which I referred suggests to not have meetings of exactly an hour in length. Many people have ‘back-to-back’ meetings, sometimes all day long. Starting 15 minutes later can help create gaps in the schedule. In general, try to keep meetings shorter, and don’t necessarily use all of the time allocated. An agenda is pivotal in this: make one and use it. If the agenda points have been discussed, the meeting is over.

Sometimes a ‘good old’ phonecall is actually not that bad. As said before – it is less intense and less (quite literally) ‘in your face’. And you can walk during the call. If that isn’t possible, putting the image of the person at the other end of the videocall directly under your camera can help create a normal conversation, with better eye contact.

For me personally, and in keeping with using terminology from within our field, it works wonders to use visuals. Pretty much every platform has a ‘share screen’ option. Now we are looking at a slide or a picture, and our presenter is much less ‘in our face’. Switch between ‘screen share’ and direct webcam access regularly to keep things dynamic and less fatiguing. Also, it may be time to invest a little bit in a good webcam, not just the built-in one in the screen. First, it will give you much more freedom to place it where you want, and the quality is so much better (including audio, but that is a completely separate story and potentially food for another column). For a little over €100, you have a pretty awesome video (and sound) quality right at your desk. The current measures may be here to stay for a while … it may be worthwhile to invest a tad in the new normal.

A whole different form of eye - care, this is. I am counting the days to the next physical meeting when we can look each other straight in the eye again. Hope to see you soon somewhere – live – again.

Sources:
Videovergaderen kan stukken beter – Marc Hijink – NRC Handelsblad – 22 September 2020