Mobile Working

Q&A: Are Eye-Tracking Desktops Nearly Upon Us?

Founded in 2001 by three engineers out of The Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Tobii Technology was set up with one goal in mind: "Wouldn't it be cool if you could control a computer with your eyes?"

Initially exploring niches outside of computer control, such as communications for disabled people or psychology studies, the company are still aiming towards getting eye-tracking in every person's computer in the future. Tom Englund, Executive Vice President of Analysis Research talks to IDG Connect about the future of Eye tracking and smart glasses.

You develop a lot of technology for people who have trouble communicating. Do you think people with handicaps miss out on new technologies?

If you look at the people who are using our technology today, it's only a sliver of the people who could actually benefit, so yes, there's definitely more people that could benefit from technology such as eye-tracking to communicate. There's a couple of different reasons why that is, but what we can do from our perspective is try and make the technology as accessible as possible for the users. That means ease of use, and user-friendliness dependent on the disabilities that you have. It might be all that you need is an eye-controlled computer but the computer works perfectly normally or it might mean that you need a very rudimentary symbol language.

The other important factor is that some of these devices still have been very expensive to come by. Tobii tries to democratize eye-tracking and make it possible for every person to buy an eye-tracker and eye controlled tablet, not just in countries who have a good state-subsidy systems for these kinds of devices. 

You just acquired Dynavox. Why?

Dynavox is a company which is present in the Augmentative and Alternative Communication [AAC] space in the US and it’s the world leader in communication for disabled/handicapped people. We have been in this space for some years now providing eye-tracked computers & tablets for people unable to communicate, for example [those with] cerebral palsy or ALS. With this acquisition we marry the communications and language capabilities of Dynavox with the eye-tracking technology & innovation of Tobii. We think it will be a complementary pairing.

What are the main use cases for eye-tracking outside of helping people who have difficulty communicating?

One very important part of our business is actually to record eye movements in order to analyse them later on or in real time. The reason for doing that is you want to uncover human behaviour: you want to understand how a human behaves, for example, inside a shopping mall or when navigating through a busy airport. This might provide different social interaction studies in psychology.

By analysing eye movements you can get a very good glimpse into what people find interesting, what they pay attention to, what they don't like or what they like. Our simulator’s space is very interesting [we look at] how pilots or drivers actually perceive the environment around them, both inside the car and outside the car and eye-tracking can be used as a training tool.

The more long term future applications is to use the eye as a pointing device that interacts with a computer.  There's a big trend towards natural user interface, novel ways of interacting with your computer, and we think eyes as a pointing device hold great promise for the future of interaction methods. 

How far away are we from using eyes as a pointer in everyday use?

In terms of hardware development and getting the performance and price right, we're not more than a year or so away. I think the longer journey will be adoption because there's a lot of people who feel it's comfortable to use a mouse today.

It will take years before eye-tracking is used in everyday computer controlled applications, but in certain niches where this happens quicker - for example we're launching an eye-tracking controller for controlling and analysing games together with SteelSeries, targeted towards hard-core gamers who can use this tool to become more efficient in their playing as well as to analyse and improve their gaming. I think that is going to be a very popular first niche and that can pave the way for broader usage within other applications more targeted towards mass market. 

What can you or other companies do to help speed the adoption of eye tracking - niche by niche or through a broader strategy?

I think niche by niche is a very good way to improve on the product, but we also want to take quantum leaps in making the technology considerably cheaper, better performing and so on - so we are investing a large amount of R&D resources into taking these platform leaps.

The other way is that we can invite developers to actually develop applications for the eye tracker. We want to bring it out there to the community and to inspire everybody with software. It might be for game interaction purposes, it might be for communication purposes, or it might be for different analytical research purposes. We have dev communities to try and spur the development of new applications, and if you want you can pick up an eye tracker from us and start hacking away with the support from our help desk. 

You've just released your 2nd version of your eye-tracking glasses – where do you fit in the wearables industry?

We are extremely excited about bringing the glasses out. In the last few years we have increased investing in Tobii’s wearable offerings and of course we see all things happening around us with the general trend towards wearable computing. 

If you look at the new glasses and compare them to what we had before we have improved the glasses in many different aspects. We have made them lighter, higher performing, more intuitive to get going with the software tools and on top of that we have slashed the price considerably. This is still a business-to-business product intended for research, but it can also be seen as a test bed into how you can use eye-tracking for various types of wearable computers, whether it be augmented reality, virtual reality, or something else.

This is your field - how difficult is it to create eye-tracking technology and get it right?

I would say that the hard part, what Tobii's really good at, is that to make eye tracking robust - work in all types of light, with glasses and contact lenses and eye issues, make up etc. Making an eye tracker work in a lab, there's a lot of people who can do that, but making sure that 99% of the population can run the eye tracker and run it really accurately, that is really hard and that is what we are good at.

Will smart glasses take off in the consumer space?

Consumers are more aware of the fashion appeal of wearing something on their face, and it will take some time to change the perception of consumers in general. But I do think the value-add for some of these applications is so high and improvements will be made in design so eventually it will blend in and become ubiquitous as a consumer device.

It will definitely take off in a variety of business-to-business applications and you see both with Google Glass and our own glasses. There's so many more applications that you can realize with wearable eye-tracking vs. stationary eye tracking, where you sit in front of a computer. There will be plenty of applications there, and there's plenty of new application areas that can open up such as in simulators, control rooms for monitoring behaviours and sports research. 

There are more and more smart glasses coming out. You've been in the space for four years now - has no one come to you asking for advice or looking to incorporate your software into their offerings?

We have various types of discussions in all directions about incorporating eye-tracking into different types of devices.

Did Google get in touch with you?

I don't want to comment on that. 

How have mobile phones and tablets changed what you do?

There are plenty of initiatives to try and eye-track things like mobile phones, but that puts demands on things like power consumption and footprint and visibility etc. Samsung has come up with a couple of different approaches - looking away from the screen makes the screen go blank and stuff like that, but it was also perceived as being very gimmicky, and many people turned it off. I don’t think eye tracking is there in the latest Galaxy 5. I think they realised unless there's a clear value proposition for what eye tracking will do than you can’t have it in there.

What you have to do is look at the use case and say: what problem are you actually trying to solve? When it comes to sitting in front of a computer where the screen is a metre away and instead of moving the cursor you can actually look to a specific point and the cursor will magically appear, that's an clear use-case, but you'll become more efficient in your computer usage and that is what we see a lot of our own internal people are using the eye-tracker for today.

But when it comes to mobile phones I would say the use case isn't that strong. You have think about what value does it bring to have eye tracking in the mobile phone? Eventually there will be eye tracking in mobile phones, for me it's still a little bit unclear what the use-cases will look like. It's much clearer with wearables, desktop, laptops, gaming, cars, but with mobiles it's still a bit uncertain.

I think the technology will become so pervasive eventually and the value will be there and people will [just] stick it in. 


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Dan Swinhoe

Dan is a journalist at CSO Online. Previously he was Senior Staff Writer at IDG Connect.

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