MIT researchers have come up with a way to measure visual clutter, a breakthrough that could help everyone from fighter pilots to website designers.

The scientists have published a paper this month in the Journal of Vision that explains their work. The impetus for the work was that "we lack a clear understanding of what clutter is, what features, attributes and factors are relevant, why it presents a problem and how to identify it," says Ruth Rosenholtz, principal research scientist at MIT's Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences (BCS).

Another issue is that clutter is perceived differently by different people, so coming up with a universal measure of what's hard or easy to pick out in a display is challenging. The model takes into account such factors as colour, data and contrast.

The researchers tested their model on people looking at a map, trying to find an arrow saying "You are here," for example.

Rosenholtz plans to offer the MIT team's visual clutter tool to designers as part of a continuing study.

The research has been funded by the Office of Naval Research and the National Science Foundation.

Check out Network World's Alpha Doggs blog for the latest in network research at universities and other labs.