Ruth Rosenholtz

WRITTEN BY: Nate Caldwell

The past year most of us have spent more time on Zoom calls than we ever could have anticipated, and CSAIL Principal Research Scientist  Ruth Rosenholtz is no exception. For Rosenholtz, the rise of video conferencing in day to day life has provided exciting research opportunities. 

“Video conferencing has really made it possible to do a lot during the pandemic, from work meetings, to remote education, telehealth doctor’s visits, and even social events,” Rosenholtz said. “But as a vision scientist, and particularly someone who studies vision for applications, I think that we could probably improve the experience through better design and technology.”

Disillusionment with video conferences has seemingly increased, with Zoom fatigue receiving lots of media attention. 

“There are probably a lot of reasons why meetings on Zoom and other video conferencing systems can be more tiring for a lot of people than meeting in person,” Rosenholtz said. “Of course, some of that might just be the need to deal with technical problems rather than focusing on the interactions with other people. But also we as humans developed to deal with others in person, and the video conferencing experience is different from that in a number of ways, which makes it more challenging and probably more tiring.” 

The problems with video conferencing run deeper than fatigue.

“At a high level, when we’re in-person we make use of a lot of social cues to decide whether other people are paying attention, how they are reacting to what we’re saying, whether they want to break in and say something, and if we meet someone new, we try to decide things like whether or not to trust them,” she said.

These problems hold greater meaning to Rosenholtz who, as a leading vision scientist and principal researcher in The Perceptual Science Group, sees connections between video conferencing and vision science.

“A lot of those social cues, for them to work, visual perception needs to work,” Rosenholtz said. “We need to adequately perceive not only individuals but also groups of people as a whole. And there are a lot of fundamental questions in visual perception that are involved in whether or not that perception is successful and effortless.”    

Some of the problems of video conferencing, like the interface of the video conferencing system, are often unable to be changed by individuals. Rosenholtz did offer some tips on improving the individual experience.

“Getting a good camera view of your face and lighting yourself well, from the front, will improve how other people perceive you,” she said. 

She also mentioned not looking at your own video, as there has been some suggestion that it can be distracting and further contributes to Zoom fatigue. One underlying design issue with video conferencing platforms is what Rosenholtz describes as clutter. 

“Participant videos can vary, causing clutter,” she said. Clutter can make it hard to perform visual tasks such as finding the speaker or getting a sense of people’s reactions in a meeting with multiple participants.

She believes her proposed work could help solve some of these problems. 

“Vision scientists tend to study these very homogeneous displays, where there are a bunch of similar faces against a blank background,” she said. “A lot of what my lab does is to extend our understanding of human vision to the kind of variability you see in the real world, or in real applications.”

There are many broader benefits to improving video conferencing aside from just individual business meetings. Improvements to vision science could benefit the video conferencing companies themselves. 

“This seems to still be a pretty competitive space, and if companies can change their design in a way that’s inspired by human vision, people might enjoy using their product more and perhaps keep using it even when we’re not in a pandemic,” Rosenholtz said. 

Rosenholtz also notes some of the potential benefits to improving video conferencing for spaces such as education and healthcare. 

“Of course, there’s an immediate connection between making video conferencing better and changing how we do online learning,” she said. “Telehealth is another example that’s certainly related, though it doesn’t have as many of the issues, since it tends to be a meeting of doctor and patient, or a small group.” 

Vision science is just starting to unlock the ways video conferencing is impacting our lives. Rosenholtz’s proposed research is a great example of how CSAIL’s researchers are constantly adapting to the problems and changes of the world. 

You can listen to more of Rosenholtz’s insights on the latest episode of the CSAIL Alliances Podcast. Additionally, get a more in-depth look at The Perceptual Science Group of the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT here: