— On our way to mag­i­cal pow­ers

Soon we’ll all have pow­er­ful looks. By CATHAL O’CON­NELL.

Cosmos - - Contents - IL­LUS­TRA­TION: AN­THONY CALVERT

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…”

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