Characterising eye movement events with an unsupervised hidden markov model

  • Malte Lüken University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands
  • Šimon Kucharský University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands
  • Ingmar Visser University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Keywords: eye tracking, eye movements, event classification, event detection, dependent mixture models, fixations, saccades, post-saccadic oscillations, smooth pursuits


Eye-tracking allows researchers to infer cognitive processes from eye movements that are classified into distinct events. Parsing the events is typically done by algorithms. Here we aim at developing an unsupervised, generative model that can be fitted to eye-movement data using maximum likelihood estimation. This approach allows hypothesis testing about fitted models, next to being a method for classification. We developed gazeHMM, an algorithm that uses a hidden Markov model as a generative model, has few critical parameters to be set by users, and does not require human coded data as input. The algorithm classifies gaze data into fixations, saccades, and optionally postsaccadic oscillations and smooth pursuits. We evaluated gazeHMM’s performance in a simulation study, showing that it successfully recovered hidden Markov model parameters and hidden states. Parameters were less well recovered when we included a smooth pursuit state and/or added even small noise to simulated data. We applied generative models with different numbers of events to benchmark data. Comparing them indicated that hidden Markov models with more events than expected had most likely generated the data. We also applied the full algorithm to benchmark data and assessed its similarity to human coding and other algorithms. For static stimuli, gazeHMM showed high similarity and outperformed other algorithms in this regard. For dynamic stimuli, gazeHMM tended to rapidly switch between fixations and smooth pursuits but still displayed higher similarity than most other algorithms. Concluding that gazeHMM can be used in practice, we recommend parsing smooth pursuits only for exploratory purposes. Future hidden Markov model algorithms could use covariates to better capture eye movement processes and explicitly model event durations to classify smooth pursuits more accurately.

How to Cite
Lüken, M., Kucharský, Šimon, & Visser, I. (2022). Characterising eye movement events with an unsupervised hidden markov model. Journal of Eye Movement Research, 15(1).

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