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.


The orthodoxy of the last decade has been to rush from technologically-powered convenience to convenience, from Napster's taking the cash and trip to the record store out of getting music, and Friendster's making the work of staying in touch with friends an act of passive surveillance, to the newest wave of portable computers that allow us to never be without Google and email, removing as much of the friction as possible from these technologies while not making no new arguments over their value. The debate over the value and meaning of these technologies is, for practical reasons, a closed matter when the most impassioned debates have moved on to access and usability.

"We think hardware is dead," Suneet Singh Tuli told MIT Technology Review in an interview this week. Tuli is head of a company making low-cost tablets in India, with hopes of one day being able to give them away for free while making money on ads and a proprietary app store. "Hardware has gotten cheap enough that restaurants or resorts should be giving customers tablets to walk away with for free. Hardware is becoming a customer-acquisition tool."

The smartphone market is the center of this transition in the West, with cellular service providers offering free or heavily subsidized phones to people willing to yoke themselves to a long-term contract. Your iPhone is magic, but it’s also the means by which AT&T and Verizon have acquired you for two years at a time. This is not cause to dismiss a technology or its providers outright, but it justifies constant skepticism of new developments that sell themselves primarily as convenience, doing something you were just as capable of doing before, only now relying on a computer algorithm to do most of it for you. The rationale beneath these developments is not an honest attempt to solve real problems within our daily lives, but a way to solve corporate problems, to ensure a solid and pervasive consumer relationship is maintained between user and provider, to minimize the tension between input and output, desire and reward, to merge the act of looking with the act of doing. In the old days thinking was required to connect sight to action, but if sight is capable of becoming action, thought has less and less purpose in our relationship with technology. 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.