Eye-tracking technology specialist Tobii and hardware manufacturer Lenovo have created a pioneering eye-controlled laptop that lets people choose documents by looking at them.
The partners showed off the prototype Lenovo PC (pictured) at the CeBIT show in Hanover this week. Using Tobii's Eye Tracker Integrated System (IS), it allows people to interact with parts of Windows 7 by looking at the screen.
The system, embedded in the horizontal black strip between the keyboard and the monitor, uses two cameras to track a user's pupils as they focus on different areas of the screen. It then sends the x and y locations of the person's gaze to the computer.
If the eye tracker detects that the user's gaze is directed slightly to the left or the right of the laptop screen, a side-based menu will flash up, allowing different documents to be selected by looking at them. The screen can also react contextually to the gaze; for example, if the caps lock key is pressed, the 'Caps Lock On' notification will appear on the screen at the point where the eyes are focused.
ZDNet UK tested the technology on Wednesday. After the 10-second calibration process and perhaps half a minute of acclimatisation, it felt natural to direct the cursor by focusing on areas of the screen, rather than using the trackpad. The level of accuracy was high, with no discernible lag between focusing on an area and the device reacting. The side-based menu could easily be scrolled through, selected and expanded by focusing on different areas.
The Eye Tracker IS technology (pictured) in the laptop uses cameras and onboard hardware to capture three pieces of information: the eye position (the eyes in space relative to the laptop, storing the information as a set of x, y and z coordinates); the gaze point (where the eyes are focusing on the screen, also stored as x and y coordinates); and the extent of dilation of the pupils.
Anders Olsson, a business development manager for Tobii, would not disclose the underlying hardware in the tracking technology, but he did say that, in small production runs, it uses a field-programmable gate array (FPGA) for aspects of the processing. In larger volumes, the FPGA can be swapped out for an application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC), he said.
The Eye Tracker IS, which is manufactured in Stockholm and China, outputs information to other devices via USB 2.0 or Ethernet 10/100 Base-T connections. It measures 218 by 49 by 36 mm and weighs 341g.
Its software interface is via two open Tobii APIs — the Raw Gaze API and the eye-control engine API. Olsson said the APIs are open because "we want everyone to be able to design applications for it — you need a critical mass".
Olsson said Lenovo had wanted to build a laptop with the Eye Tracker IS technology for in-house research and development efforts.
The Swedish company hopes that the eye-tracking system will start to be used in a range of applications outside of its usual markets of market research and medical technology. Other potential applications include gaming machines, medical instruments and vehicles, according to Olsson, who declined to comment on whether Tobii was involved in extending the technology to tablets.
To show off some of the possible consumer applications of the technology, Olsson demonstrated a gaming application (pictured). In this game, a user can shoot down individual asteroids by focusing on them as they head towards the planet, which causes a planet-based laser to destroy them.
ZDNet UK also had a go — as with the laptop, it took around half a minute to feel acclimatised. Eye control felt intuitive and made the simple game engaging and, as the intervals between asteroid waves decreased, stressful.
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