Every so often, a futuristic idea emerges in computing and ether takes the world by storm or vanishes amid general derision. The latest idea is a laptop controlled by the eyes instead of a mouse. Tobii, a Swedish company which already makes eye-controlled personal computers for paralysed people and researsh laboratories, unveiled a prototype at the recent CeBIT trade fair in Hanover, Germany, for a mass-market device.
Eye control could become as ubiquitous as the touch screen, or be rejected by the bulk of computer users as too geeky – as was the fate of videophones, which many people find too invasive for everyday use. Tobii’s device, a sleek black Lenovo laptop, has a keyboard and users must also use their hands to operate it.
“You still use the 3d optical mouse to click, but the eyes are ideal for pointing, ” explained Anders Olsson, business development manager at Tobii, which is based in Danderyd in Sweden. Images can be zoomed in on by focusing on a point on the screen, and then pressing a keyboard key. The same procedure is used to change focus between windows and to make a taskbar pop up from the bottom of the screen. Although this is physically unsettling at first, the technique only takes a minute to learn and is intuitive to use.
On a PC at Tobii’s booth, there was a simple eye-controlled game in which the user palyed at being attacked by rogue asteroids. Looking directly at each one on the screen causes it to explode. The user’s eyes must flick rapidly from one incoming rock to the next as the rate of attack speeds up.
The device uses tiny video cameras to track eye movements. A Tobii executive showed the circuitry, an assembly about 18 centimeters long that fits inside the lid section of the Lenovo laptop. Tobii said it hoped the device would enter mass production in two years.
Eye control is not new. The challenge is to make it cheap enough to introduce in mass-market laptops and kick off an “ecosystem” in which software engineers use it to create new applications. Olsson said that eye control was a “natural user interface,” an intermediate mode between the direct contact of an Apple iPad touch screen and the room-sized distance of Microsoft’s Kinect, a sensor that reads gestures. Like these other natural user interfaces, an eye-controlled computer will enable some actions impossible with just a keyboard and 3d optical mouse.
Tobii’s computers already scroll the text automatically up and down as the eyes move around it.
Olsson cited the problem most people have finding their place when they return to a half-read text or rediscovering a place they noticed while skimming a very long text. Eye-control computers log what you have already seen.
“When I am browsing through e-mails, I can see which parts I have read before and which parts I haven’t read,” he said.
An eye-controlled computer can also save power, dimming and going into energy-saving mode when you stop looking at it, Olsson added.
Executives said Tobii was the main company in the eye-control sector.
They said major computer manufacturers other than Lenovo had already contacted them with a request to buy the technology. The company has 270 employees, 1,000 corporate customers and 5,000 private users, Olsson said during a presentation at CeBIT.
Eye control is already in use by paralysed people who cannot speak or type, such as those suffering from locked-in syndrome, a condition in which people appear to be in a coma but can think and sense normally.
In cars, eye-control is likely to become a universal road safety feature if the cost can be reduced far enough. It can be used to detect driver drowsiness.
When the driver’s eyelids shut, the car can automatically issue a wake-up call, for example by setting the windscreen wipers going.