Developing collaborations between academia and industry

[By: Chiara Capparini]

As you may already know, the MOTION network is made up by a diverse team of experts and early stage researchers mixing both academic and industrial expertise. In this blog post, I am going to discuss with you my really fresh experience developing collaboration between my host University, Lancaster University, and an industrial partner, Smart Eye.

First of all, let me briefly introduce myself. My name is Chiara and I am originally from the beautiful Lake Como, Italy. I obtained my Master’s degree in Cognitive Neuroscience at the Center for Mind/Brain Sciences (CIMeC), University of Trento, Italy. I was lucky to join the MOTION network as an Early Stage Researcher at Lancaster University, moving from that branch of the lake which inspired the Italian novelist Alessandro Manzoni to the Lake District which inspired many, let me just mention Beatrix Potter (since our interest lies in infancy and childhood!). Here, apart from a nice and quiet town surrounded by placid parks and lakes, I found an amazing Babylab waiting for me, with a very welcoming environment full of great researchers, a lot of equipment and many nice families willing to be involved.

What I am researching on is how babies process social information in their environment. Thus far, most of the research relied on simplified two-dimensional images presented centrally on computer displays. Since in reality only a minority of the visual information is restricted within the central and parafoveal visual fields, my first steps into this research project aim to understand what visual information infants can process and perceive at peripheral locations.

Trying to investigate babies’ looking behaviour in a wider field of view I came across some constraints: usually eye-trackers are developed to track relatively small and flat displays. I realized that a multi-camera solution, such as the one developed by Smart Eye, would have been optimal to track a wider environment. That’s why, together with my supervisors, I decided to propose Smart Eye a collaboration. First, I presented the studies I planned to Smart Eye and, once they expressed their interest, an agreement has been made. After that, I have been collaborating with my colleague Clément, ESR from Smart Eye, to discuss my expectations and to organize his visit here in Lancaster to set up an eye tracking system.

His visit here at Lancaster University is just over. We spent 10 days setting up the eye tracking system, defining our visual environment and checking if everything worked well. We first tried the experiment on ourselves, but the challenge was to make everything work for babies. Compared to adults, their head geometry is different, their position relative to the monitor is less stable and, of course, their behaviour with regards to the experiment is not the same. We piloted few babies and we found out that the stimuli were probably not salient enough. Now it is my job to improve the experiment and make it more appealing for an infant. We can try to predict what could work better for a baby but it is important to take some time piloting and evaluating if our experimental decisions are effective. This is even more important if the experimental setup has not been tried before with babies, like in my case. Importantly, I now have access to the most recent technology available to test my hypothesis.

It might sound obvious, but I feel lucky to be part of this network which brings together academic and industrial partners to achieve a better understanding of early social and cognitive development. From my point of view, this collaboration has been precious to consider some technical aspects I was not aware of and, more in general, to take advantage of the state-of-the-art techniques to measure infant behaviour. On the other side, I think that this collaboration is also useful from the industrial perspective in order to get data to validate their products and also to have an idea of what can be improved for research customers.