It's an innovative step forward. But what problem, exactly, is eye-tracking technology for mobile devices meant to solve?

Written by Michael Thomsen (@mike_thomsen)


Technologies aren't taken seriously until they make something superfluous seem like magic. When a technology is driven to solve clear and limited problems, its proponents labor in obscurity, but when that technology can become the basis for something mostly useless, fame and fortune await. Eye tracking has a long but not especially famous history, used in research on a variety of disparate subjects including monitoring driving behavior and creating communication systems for people with disabilities. The catalyst for taking this technology from experimental possibility to mass-market feature may be the convenience of browsing web pages and scrolling menus just by looking at them.

UMoove, an Israeli company, is preparing a tool kit that will allow eye tracking to be added to apps made for either iOS or Android. The tool uses low resolution front-facing cameras found on cell phones to track both head and eye movement of the user, making it possible to scroll through web pages, move a cursor, pause videos by looking away, zoom in or out by moving closer or farther away, and even guide a ball through an obstacle course in a simple game. Button presses can be done just by staring at one particular thing for a few seconds. 

 

We are slowly being surrounded by tools that make it easier to act on subconscious impulses and first reactions, and no one has yet made a convincing argument about why that should be seen as progress.

 

Earlier this month a company called BUIA announced a Kickstarter project for their own eye tracking tool that allows users to control their whole computer and not just a cell phone. eyeCharm uses Microsoft's Kinect camera peripheral as a base, adds a clip-on attachment to its lenses, and comes with software that allows Windows 7 and 8 to translate eye and head movements into inputs the operating system can process. A video demonstration shows users doing everything from working in Photoshop to playing Diablo III using only eye movements and an occasional keyboard press.

Rumors about Samsung's next smart phone, the Galaxy S IV using eye tracking, suggest the moment of eye tracking becoming a store room reality is at hand. Yet, it's worth asking what problem mass-market eye tracking is meant to solve. The best case scenario is making computers and phones more accessible to people with physical disabilities. UMoove first came together when one of its founders began wondering about ways to help a relative with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a degenerative condition that eventually leads to paralysis. In other cases, eye tracking might have a beneficial role to play in monitoring at risk subjects health, such as a recent study that suggested the technology could be used to determine if a person is having a stroke based on eye movements.

These are good uses and worth pursuing, but they are not explanations as to why eye tracking should be a mass-market option for interfacing with technology. It is a little perverse to think a technology designed to make smartphones more accessible to people with limited control of their limbs is now being used to make it incrementally more convenient for those who do not have such challenges to scroll through a story without the laborious finger swipe or mouse gesture. It's as if someone tried to market wheel chairs for people who are able to walk but have decided it's an unproductive and inconvenient use of their time. Just imagine how much more reading and emailing time you would have if a computer could automate the process of walking for you, and how many more ads you could be served while doing it.

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