Imagine scrolling an online news article by merely staring at the bottom of the webpage. How about reorganizing your desktop files by dragging them around with your gaze?
For years we’ve been using mice and keyboard (and later touch screens) as the main tools to control and send commands to our computers and devices.
But 2016 proved that things are headed for a change. With great leaps in artificial intelligence and machine learning, we saw a new array of highly efficient assistants and devices that can be controlled with voice commands.
The start of 2017 gave a hint at what the next breakthrough might be.
If you’re following tech publications, eye tracking has made the rounds quite a bit lately. The Facebook-owned Oculus acquired eye tracking startup Eye Tribe; Acer announced a new monitor that tracks eye movement at CES 2017; and again, at CES, Tobii announced a new line of eye tracking initiatives for the coming year.
Here are the key points if you’re wondering what is eye tracking technology and what it can do.
What is eye tracking?
Eye tracking is about understating the state and activity of the eye. This includes tracking your point of gaze, the duration of your stare at any given point, when you blink and how your pupils react to different visual stimuli.
But it’s also about where you’re not looking, what you’re ignoring, what gets you distracted and so forth.
The information gathered by eye tracking technology can be used to facilitate a number of tasks that were previously cumbersome, and also opens up possibilities that were inconceivable before.
While the concept might sound simple, the technology behind it is quite complex and has been made possible thanks to advances in sensors technology as well as image analysis and recognition.
Eye tracking devices
Based on task requirements, eye tracking gear are usually head mounted or remote. Head mounted or mobile units, such as eye tracking glasses, are more suitable for settings where you’re moving around such as task performance in real life or virtual environments. Remote devices, now reduced to the size of very small panels, offer a less intrusive experience and are convenient for when you’re sitting behind your computer and gazing at the monitor.
Most common eye tracking devices usually involve two main components: an infrared or near-infrared light source and a camera. The light is directed toward the eye, and the camera picks up the reflections to calculate rotation of the eyes and direction of the gaze. Eye tracking devices also pick up other activity such as blink frequency and changes in eye pupil diameter.
The collected data is then fed to algorithms and software, which discover details in the user’s eyes and reflection patterns, and interpret the image stream to calculate the user’s eyes and gaze point on a device screen.
Use cases of eye tracking technology
We use our eyes constantly for different tasks including reading magazines, gazing at posters and ads, playing games and whatnot. Virtually anything that involves a visual component can become the subject of eye tracking and the data collected by eye tracking devices can be leveraged to glean insights and understand human behavior.
Here are some of the more popular use cases.
Eye tracking in gaming
One of the most obvious uses of eye tracking is improving gaming experience. There are a wide range of areas where eye tracking can make it easier for users to interact with the user interface of games, as they can replace mouse navigation and scrolling.
They can also be used to analyze the eye interaction with the interface. This can help players improve their gaming by giving them insights on what details they’re ignoring.
In rendering, the technology can be used to prioritize rendering for the gaze area and make more efficient use of computer resources.
The technology can also be used to improve the gaming environment, such as having the game characters react when the user is staring directly at them. Imagine an RPG where characters in a tavern will get mad if you look at their purse or an FPS where you can tip off AI allies about enemies sneaking up on them by looking in their direction.
Games will become a whole lot easier to play (though I’m not sure if it’s a good thing).
Eye tracking in advertising and market research
Knowing where customers and users look—and where they don’t—can be invaluable for both online, TV and print advertising. Eye trackers on monitors and kiosks can glean insights into how many users see key messages and component of ads, while mobile gear can be used to weigh customer reaction to print material, posters and product packages.
Eye tracking devices can also help store owners research customer behavior and navigation patterns in order to better understand how customers look at products on shelves, which sections of the store get more attention from customers, and how they can make better use of their store space.
Eye tracking in UI and environment testing
Eye tracking can give a huge leg up to A/B testing, the method used to measure efficiency of variations to user interface.
Software and web developers can use eye tracking to better understand what’s good and not so good about the user interfaces of their applications and websites. Eye tracking will let you know what areas of the screen are getting more attention and focus, and how you can reorient and restructure user interfaces to improve user engagement.
Software and game developers can better understand which features of their applications are going unnoticed. VR environments can be tested to see how much attention is directed to each of the areas.
Eye tracking and accessibility
Eye tracking will make it possible for users with physical difficulties in performing mouse navigation. Eye tracking can help users with disabilities move the cursor as efficiently as anyone.
Eye tracking and driving safety
Distracted driving and drowsiness are two of the prominent causes of road incidents. Eye tracking technology can help track the driver’s attention and state of awareness and issue warnings.
Combined with other innovative technologies such as smart sensors and image analysis software, eye tracking can help direct drivers’ attention to where it most matters and prevent incidents from happening.
And much more
This is just the beginning. There are a lot of other fields where eye tracking can be useful, including medicine, education, simulation and neuroscience, and probably many more areas that we will soon find out as the technology further matures and goes mainstream.
Will there be a dark side to it? Time will tell. For the moment, we know that companies will be able to collect much more information about us, and that usually does come with some privacy tradeoffs. But it’s still too early to tell whether this is a bad thing or not.
The following infographic by iMotions sums up eye tracking pretty well.