12:24am

Mon December 3, 2012
All Tech Considered

In Eye Control, A Promise To Let Your Tablet Go Hands-Free

Originally published on Mon December 3, 2012 1:57 am

Forget touch screens and voice recognition — what if you could control your computer just by looking at it? Gaze-based interaction has been around for 20 years, used mainly by people with disabilities. But the technology could be available to the masses soon, allowing users to move a cursor with their eyes, or turn the pages of an e-book without lifting a finger.

In Denmark, an eye-control research group has just turned itself into a business, hoping to be part of the next wave of usability.

If you look at the big names in eye-control technology, you'll notice that most companies are based in the U.S. or Northern Europe, places where there's enough private wealth or government support to help people with disabilities pay for pricey specialized equipment.

"But not everyone gets it," says usability expert Sune Alstrup Johansen, of the Gaze Group at the IT University of Copenhagen. "And obviously if you look at the rest of the world, a lot of people don't have access to these expensive eye trackers."

Johansen, a Ph.D. student, spent years working on the question of how to make the systems cheaper.

"After a while, we figured out that probably the best way is to go for a mass-market approach," he says, "where everybody would have this available."

Just over a year ago, Johansen and his colleagues spun off into The Eye Tribe, a company with the goal of making it possible for all people to control mobile devices with their eyes. He explains how it works:

"You have infrared light that is projected toward your face. And the infrared light is then reflected in your pupil. And by seeing those reflections, we can pretty easily — well, not easily," he adds with a laugh — "with our algorithms, we can easily calculate where you're looking."

The snag is the infrared light, which is not a standard feature on most smartphones and tablets. Johansen says that adding it wouldn't be a huge change, as it means switching out a filter on the camera that comes on most mobile devices.

Still, it is a change — and that means convincing manufacturers that mainstream users are going to want it. And what's more mainstream than Fruit Ninja, one of the most popular game apps in the world?

In the game, players swipe across a touch screen to slice flying fruit into pieces. In the Eye Tribe's version, you slice and dice using only your eyes.

When I ask to try it, Javier San Agustin hands me a modified Windows 8 tablet.

"So you hold it like that, and now you need to do the calibration process," he says. "Just follow the dot."

I follow the dot so the computer can get to know my eyes, which sounds easy enough. But it's weird using a sense organ as a muscle. I feel like an unpracticed superhero with lasers coming out of my eyes — which may explain why I somehow manage to fail the calibration (twice).

"Let's try again," San Agustin says.

Once I do pass and actually play Fruit Ninja, it's pretty amazing. But just because what the Eye Tribe is doing is flashy, that doesn't mean it's a sure thing. There are plenty of other companies working on different versions of eye-control and eye-tracking technology. Some may not be as precise, or require changes in hardware.

Still, one way or another, "This will happen," says John Paulin Hansen, who heads the research group that spawned the Eye Tribe. But he adds that it won't happen in a vacuum.

"It's a small part of a very big change that's happening to the way that we interact with computers," he says. "I hope our children will look back on us and think, 'Oh my God, it was so hard back then to use a computer. You had to sit down in front of it all day!' "

For Stig Langvad, change can't come fast enough. He's the head of Denmark's umbrella organization for people with disabilities. Because of a spinal cord injury, Langvad relies on voice control to use his computer, reciting commands like, "Type. Control. Enter."

The system works fine, but it's slow. When he needs to make a selection, Langvad brings up a nine-square grid on his screen, and then narrows in on his target by choosing the appropriate square over and over, shrinking the grid.

And then, finally, he can say, "Mouse click."

If Langvad could just move a cursor with his eyes, he says, "It would be much easier, it would be much faster — and it would be much more silent."

That's not all it would be. For people with disabilities, eye-control technology becoming mainstream would bring another important change.

"Then I can go to any computer, and then I can control it and I can use it, instead of just bringing my own," Langvad says. "So I'll be a part of society on an equal foot, instead of being a special solution."

He adds, "To me, it is going to change the world. And I think it's delicious, to be a part of that process."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Touch screens and voice recognition are the norm when it comes to a lot of electronic devices on the market. But imagine if you could control a computer just by looking at it. What's called Gaze-based interaction has actually been around for 20 years, but has been used mainly in products for people with disabilities. Soon this technology could be available for the masses. You could move a cursor with your eyes or turn the pages of an eBook without lifting a finger.

Sidsel Overgaard reports on a Danish research-group-turned-business hoping to be part of the wave.

SIDSEL OVERGAARD, BYLINE: If you look at the big names in eye control technology, you'll notice that most companies are located either in the U.S. or Northern Europe, places where there's enough private wealth or government support to help people with disabilities pay for pricey specialized equipment.

SUNE ALSTRUP JOHANSEN: But not everyone gets it. And, obviously, if you look at the rest of the world, a lot of people don't have access to these expensive eye-trackers.

OVERGAARD: So how to make it cheaper? This is what PhD student Sune Alstrup Johansen spent years working on as part of the Gaze Group at the IT University of Copenhagen.

JOHANSEN: After a while, we figured out that probably the best way is to go for a mass-market approach, where everybody would have this available.

OVERGAARD: And so just over a year ago, Johansen and his colleagues spun off into The Eye Tribe, a company with the goal of making it possible for all people to control mobile devices with their eyes. Here's how it works.

JOHANSEN: You have infrared light that is projected toward your face. And the infrared light is then reflected in your pupil. And by seeing those reflections, we can pretty easily - well, not easily. We can - with our algorithms, we can easily calculate where you're looking.

OVERGAARD: The catch is in that infrared light - not a standard feature on most smart phones and tablets. Johansen says adding it wouldn't be a huge change, maybe just switching out a filter on the camera that comes with most mobile devices.

But it is a change, and that means convincing manufacturers that mainstream users are going to want it. And what's more mainstream than "Fruit Ninja," one of the most popular apps in the world?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

OVERGAARD: In regular "Fruit Ninja," players use a touch screen to swipe flying fruit into pieces. In The Eye Tribe's version, you slice and dice using only your eyes.

Can I try?

JAVIER SAN AGUSTIN: Yeah, yeah.

OVERGAARD: Javier San Agustin hands me a modified Windows 8 tablet.

AGUSTIN: So you hold it like that, and now you need to do the calibration process. So just, yeah, follow the dot.

OVERGAARD: Just follow the dot so the computer can get to know my eyes. Sounds easy enough. But it's weird using a sense organ as a muscle. I feel like an unpracticed superhero with lasers coming out of my eyes, which may explain why I somehow manage to fail the calibration twice.

AGUSTIN: Actually, I don't think you passed.

OVERGAARD: I didn't pass?

AGUSTIN: No.

(LAUGHTER)

AGUSTIN: So let's try again.

OVERGAARD: OK.

Once I do pass and actually start playing "Fruit Ninja," it's pretty amazing.

Wow.

But just because what the Eye Tribe is doing is flashy doesn't mean it's a sure thing. There are plenty of other companies working on different versions of eye control and eye-tracking technology, some that may not be as precise or require changes in hardware.

Still, one way or another...

JOHN PAULIN HANSEN: This will happen.

OVERGAARD: But John Paulin Hansen says it won't happen in a vacuum. He heads the research group that spawned the Eye Tribe.

HANSEN: It's a small part of a very big change that's happening to the way that we are interacting with computers. I hope that our children will look back on us and think, oh, my God. It was so hard back then to use a computer. You had to sit down in front of it all day.

OVERGAARD: For Stig Langvad, change can't come fast enough.

STIG LANGVAD: Type control, enter.

OVERGAARD: Langvad is the head of Denmark's umbrella organization for people with disabilities. Because of a spinal cord injury, he relies on voice control to use his computer. That's fine, but slow.

When he needs to make a selection...

LANGVAD: Mouse click. Five, seven.

OVERGAARD: Langvad brings up a nine-square grid and narrows in on something by choosing the appropriate square over and over, as the grid grows smaller.

LANGVAD: Mouse click.

OVERGAARD: If he could just move a cursor with his eyes...

LANGVAD: Then it would be much easier. It would be much faster, and it would be much more silent.

OVERGAARD: But for people with disabilities, says Langvad, there's something more important. Once this technology becomes mainstream...

LANGVAD: Then I can go to any computer, and then I can control it and I can use it, instead of just bringing my own. So I'll be a part of society on equal foot, instead of being a special solution. To me, it is going to change the world. And I think it's delicious, to be a part of that process.

OVERGAARD: For NPR News, I'm Sidsel Overgaard, in Copenhagen. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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