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Watch this space: Eye-control to give technology a new look

  • Remote eye-tracking technology could transform how we use computers
  • Prototype laptop from Lenovo and Tobii allowed users to control it using sight
  • Other use could be in cars as safety devices; already used to help disabled
  • One barrier to widespread adoption could be public acceptance, says analyst

(CNN) -- Using a computer mouse can be a pain, sometimes literally for those suffering from repetitive strain injury, but mouse-killing technology is on the horizon that could also change the way we interact with computers and mobile devices.

Earlier this year Chinese PC maker Lenovo unveiled a prototype laptop that could tracker a user's eye movement, enabling them to move cursors and open folders just by looking at them.

It was equipped with built-in eye-tracking technology that used near infra-red light and image sensors to detect the position of the user's pupils.

It may be a couple of years before similar laptops are on the market, but there are no technical barriers to remote eye-tracking according to the company that pioneered the technology and worked with Lenovo on the prototype.

The biggest issue is not a technical one. It is getting consumers to want to use eye tracking.
--Hung LeHong, Gartner analyst

"Within a couple of years we'll see eye-tracking in consumer products, like consumer computing and cars," says Jenny Grant, strategic business development manager for Tobii Technology.

Grant says the company is working with auto manufacturers to explore how on-board computers can help detect whether a driver is drowsy or not paying attention to the road, and allow a driver to control certain things in the vehicle -- like temperature, and in-car stereo -- using eye-control technology.

Keyboards won't be relegated to the tech dustbin of history, as hands are much better for certain things like typing and confirming a choice, says Grant.

But when it comes to pointing or showing where attention is, the eyes have it.

That is certainly the belief among many marketing and advertising professionals who operate on the simple premise that where you look is where your attention is; track that gaze and the money follows.

For years eye-tracking has been used by retailers to find out what customers look at in their stores and what parts of a website are the most eye-catching.

This has often involved headsets worn by customers that track where their gaze falls and for how long.

More recently companies like Youeye have brought remote eye-tracking into homes via a regular webcam and a software loaded USB stick that can track where people look on web pages.

However these are technologies that track you rather allowing a new form of control offered by companies like Tobii and Taiwanese rival Utechzone.

Currently the remote eye-control technology is still complex, and quite expensive, admits Grant.

What seems simple has taken years of research to overcome the problem of reading different eye colors and allowing for head movement so people can relax while using the systems.

The original grand vision of Tobii's founders was to put eye-tracking technology into every computer, but there are some that wonder if eye-tracking might be the next Bluetooth, useful but not widely used.

"The biggest issue is not a technical one. It is getting consumers to want to use eye-tracking. Consumers take a long time to change -- if they ever do," says Hung LeHong, research vice president for Gartner's innovation research team

"Remote eye-tracking reduces the intrusiveness of older-style eye-tracking, and gesture control's rise will help the adoption of eye-tracking, but consumers are hard to train or convince to use these types of technologies."

In the next two years the most common place to see eye-control technology will be in interactive public displays, tablets, laptops and smart phones, and perhaps in video games, believes Hung.

That will be life improving for some but already for thousands of disabled people eye-tracking is proving life changing.

Utechzone's Spring systems and Tobii products have been used by thousands of disabled people, many suffering for cerebral palsy or muscular dystrophy and have allowed them to communicate faster and easier.

"We're very, very proud of that," says Grant. "We give them a possibility to communicate with their parents and friends and give them a freedom to interact like others and do what they enjoy."


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