— On our way to magical powers
Soon we’ll all have powerful looks. By CATHAL O’CONNELL.
Who hasn’t daydreamed about moving things with their eyes, like the young heroine in Roald Dahl’s novel Matilda discovered she could do? Soon, we could all possess that magical power – at least when it comes to our digital devices.
New advances in eye-tracking technology mean controlling computers and smartphones with our eyes could become as routine as tapping a touchscreen is today.
As futuristic as it sounds, digital technology to track gaze has been around since the 1990s, but the bulkiness and cost of the equipment limited its use to niche research applications. Psychologists used it to study eye movement during reading, for example, or how a person’s eyes scan a new face. Supermarket chains and other stores employed it to check out what products catch a customer’s eye as they scan shelves.
Now the technology has advanced enough to be used on a home computer. “The latest generation eye-tracking technology is not only much cheaper, but considerably smaller,” says Andreas Bulling, a technology researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Informatics in Saarbrücken, Germany.
Take Eyex, a device that allows you to move your mouse cursor around using your eyes. Created by Swedish company Tobii, this “eye-mouse” is a thin black bar, about the length of a ruler, placed just below your computer screen. The device, costing just €109 (about A$145), works by bouncing near-infrared light (so you can’t see it) off your eyes to detect your pupils and work out where you’re looking.
It’s not pixel-perfect. At best, devices such as these can pinpoint where on the screen you’re looking to an accuracy of about one centimetre. If typing, you could highlight a particular word but not a single letter; and to achieve even that level of accuracy, new users must go through a labourious series of calibration steps to enable the device to follow their eyes.
Bulling’s team, along with researchers at Lancaster University hope to ease that burden. They developed software that rapidly and automatically calibrates to new users by observing how the user’s eyes pursue a series of moving targets.
A more challenging issue with existing eye-tracking technologies, Bulling says, is the so-called “Midas touch” problem. Our eyes naturally jump around as we continually scan our environment, meaning eye-trackers can pick up unintended commands. Holding down a designated key is one way to let the device know when to pay attention, though that limits the technology’s “hands-free” appeal.
Despite the limitations, there is plenty early adopters can do with today’s devices. Combined with keyboard clicks, they are good enough to control a web browser, for example, and play games.
Tobii markets the Eyex primarily as a gaming accessory. Some of the latest games promise an immersive experience, detecting where you are looking and panning the view in that direction. You can even use your eyes to target your weapon.
The Eyex’s gaming emphasis isn’t surprising when you consider that much of the recent progress in eye-tracker technology was fuelled by research into virtual reality and augmented reality headsets ( Cosmos issue 62 p32; issue 67, p26). By tracking your eyes, VR devices can figure out which parts of a scene they should render in high resolution. The background only needs a cursory treatment, saving a huge amount of processing power.
Tobii rival Oculus sells similar technology to the Eyex geared more for commercial use. Its system, recently purchased from Danish company Eye Tribe, can analyse how people navigate websites, generating a “heatmap” showing how the eyes scoot around from pictures to text and, of course, adverts.
The technology can also interface with the front-facing camera on a smartphone or tablet to monitor your gaze. You could set up the device to automatically scroll down a web page as your eyes approach the bottom of the screen. Or you could pause or rewind a video with your eyes – useful for following a recipe with your hands full in the kitchen. The software could soon add to the simple “head-tracking” features already creeping onto smartphones such as the Samsung Galaxy, which can autopause a video when you look away from the screen.
The technology’s most life-changing uses, though, will be in health care, where eye-tracking is already beginning to help people with disabilities control computers, and could soon enable them to operate their own wheelchair.
It may not be Matilda’s mystical power, but that’s still pretty magical.
“I did it with my eyes,” Matilda said. “I was staring at [the glass] and wishing it to tip and then my eyes went all hot and funny and some sort of power came out of them…”