Mobile video chat programs like FaceTime, Skype and Google Hangouts use a lot of bandwidth, which is the amount of data you can send in a given period of time, usually limited by users' smartphone coverage plans.
By reducing the amount of bandwidth mobile video chats consume, Ward believes he can improve user experience.
Countless studies have shown that people tend to look away while they're talking, especially right before they start a sentence or when they pause to think about what to say next.
"During conversations, Americans look away every 10 to 20 seconds for about an average of two seconds," Ward said. "This turns out to be a significant chunk of time that we're looking away from each other."
The computer scientist plans to capitalize on these gaze aversions by pausing video transmission when they occur during video chat.
"There's no point in sending your face across the network if I'm looking away at that time," he said. "For that second or two we can suspend transmission because I'm not going to be looking at what's on my screen anyway."
The video transmission pauses could save a lot of unnecessary data from being transferred between the mobile chat participants, and thus save bandwidth.
To make the software possible, the research team needs to develop a gaze prediction algorithm that will be able to determine 200 milliseconds in advance when a user will avert their gaze from the screen.
Ward recently applied for Google, Comcast and National Science Foundation grants to fund the research project. Awardees will be contacted in the next six months.
If successful, he believes users won't be able to notice the video pauses and that the new software will reduce mobile bandwidth consumption in video chat by 9 percent — leading to an all around better experience for users.