University of South Florida


Through biometric sensors that track facial expression, electrical activity in the brain and eye movement, Jill Schiefelbein used the lab to study participants' authentic responses to avatars to determine if avatars impact a viewer’s trust, engagement and information retention. | Photo by: Cassidy Delamarter

USF expands artificial intelligence research with new business lab

By: Cassidy Delamarter, University Communications and Marketing

The University of South Florida has launched its first lab dedicated to providing students and faculty high-tech tools to help better understand the opportunities and impact of artificial intelligence in business. The Behavioral AI Lab is part of the Center for Marketing and Sales Innovation Customer Experience Lab, which is known nationally for helping various industries maximize their influence on consumers.

“AI today is like the internet was in 1995 – there will be many new capabilities and applications in the future,” said Rob Hammond, associate professor and director of the Center for Marketing and Sales Innovation in the Muma College of Business. “We planned for this in our approach to the lab by leveraging a diverse set of tools to enable many types of research.”

Student with smart glasses on and viewing a menu

Jaclyn Sehr, USF Master of Science in Marketing graduate, wearing the Behavioral AI Lab's smart glasses to view a menu and track her eye movement to determine where consumers' eyes gravitate on menus. | Photo by: Cassidy Delamarter

The Behavioral AI Lab is equipped with biometric sensors to track the tone of a person’s voice and word choice, eye movement, facial expression, stress via galvanic skin response and electrical activity in the brain. With 20 computer stations, the capability to control ambient light and sound and five interaction rooms, the lab provides researchers with the necessary tools to examine human response to AI in studies online and in-person. 

For Jill Schiefelbein, a recent graduate of the doctor of business administration program, the lab’s assets and resources allowed her to analyze whether consumers trust video messages delivered by hyper-realistic avatars – an area of research previously unexplored. In her dissertation defense, Schiefelbein displayed a side-by-side image of her avatar and herself, revealing just how lifelike avatars can truly be.

To determine if avatars impact a viewer’s trust, engagement and information retention, she used eye-tracking technology and facial expression sensors to monitor study participants’ authentic responses as they watched a video of her and a video of her avatar.

“The avatar technology, if adopted by businesses, can provide an efficient way to expand personalized communication and reach more consumers than ever before by allowing them to quickly create video messages containing social presence in a variety of languages by simply typing a script,” Schiefelbein said. “This lab provided me with a unique opportunity to study the efficacy of this communication channel and reveal information that can be beneficial to sales teams when using generative AI technology to communicate with clients and potential clients."

Jill's avatar

Schiefelbein's avatar (left) and Schiefelbein herself (right)

Schiefelbein found that the element of disclosure is crucial. A majority of viewers had a positive response when they were told in advance of watching the video that it would feature an avatar. However, when the use of the avatar was not disclosed beforehand and viewers were left assuming it was actually Schiefelbein, the response was overwhelmingly negative when they learned it was actually her avatar instead. Nearly 85% of the viewers were unhappy and many said they felt “duped, fooled and scared.” 

“While AI presents unimagined opportunities, it also challenges existing business processes,” Hammond said. He shared that Schiefelbein’s research is a great example of that and how this lab can be used to analyze what the future holds for businesses as they begin integrating AI.

“This lab is an important asset in preparing our students for the world they will join,” he said. “AI can be viewed as a collaborator, tool or competitor. Our goal is to prepare our students to thrive in the world by providing experiential learning that allows them to not only use and collaborate with AI, but more importantly, to build solutions to solve novel problems.”

Students can volunteer in the lab and as long as they’re working with a faculty member, they can use it for their own research. The Behavioral AI Lab is available to researchers from all three campuses. The Center for Marketing and Sales Innovation operates physical labs on the Tampa and St. Petersburg campuses, which are accessible remotely for online data collection and analysis. 

Hammond hopes to expand access to the lab by developing more programs at USF. “There are so many important questions to be answered about how we use AI and AI’s implications for business and society. We are just getting started,” Hammond said. 

Interested faculty can contact Rob Hammond,, for more information.

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