Computing Looks to the Eyes; Eyeballs are poised to emerge in coming years as a legitimate tool for controlling everything from handsets to games

Updated March 25, 2013, 11:38 p.m. ET

Computing Looks to the Eyes

Technology That Tracks Eye Movement Could Cut Down on Mouse Use

By SVEN GRUNDBERG

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Touch screens have removed some of the need for clunky hardware extras long associated with personal computing. But the biggest technical challenge to wean computers off the age-old keyboard and mouse may rest on the two sockets in our heads.

Eyes are poised to emerge in coming years as a legitimate pointing tool for computers and mobile devices to accompany other methods of interacting with personal gadgets.

State-of-the-art eye tracking is mostly found in the health-care industry, as aids for disabled people with impaired mobility. Now the race is on to incorporate the technology into mass-market consumer electronics for games and everyday applications.

Multinational heavyweights Samsung Electronics Co. 005930.SE +0.94% and LG Electronics Inc. 066570.SE +0.24% have brought eye-tracking technology to the forefront by implementing it in their mobile devices. Their new flagship phones are able to detect users’ eye presence, allowing for features such as automatically pausing videos when the user is looking away from the screen or scrolling up or down a Web page.

These companies’ technologies, however, can only be used for very limited applications, and some tech reviewers and analysts consider them to be more gimmicky than game-changing.

“Samsung’s eye tracking is definitely very interesting, but they have not yet nailed the experience,” said Francisco Jeronimo, a tech analyst at International Data Corp, who recently tried out the eye-tracking function in Samsung’s coming Galaxy S 4 phone which starts shipping next month.

One company that is hoping to bring eye-tracking tools to the masses is Tobii TechnologyAB, a Stockholm company founded by three engineers in 2001.

“I’m convinced, even to the point of fanaticism, that eye tracking will be integrated in all types of computer devices in the future,” Henrik Eskilsson, the 38-year-old chief executive and co-founder, said during a phone interview from Japan, where he was meeting customers.

This fall his company plans to start shipping its REX device, a small bar that attaches to the bottom of a computer screen through a USB port. Tobii plans to start selling it as an accessory for Windows 8 PCs, with eventual plans to incorporate the technology into laptops and tablets.

Rather than using a camera, Tobii’s device includes a microprojector that emits infrared light to generate a reflection pattern on the eyes. This reflection is collected by an image sensor and processed by software to determine where the person is looking, within a millimeter, Tobii says. Users must sit within a meter of the eye-tracker, and calibrate it to understand the characteristics of the specific set of eyes.

Mr. Eskilsson expects games to be one of the initial applications for this technology, and said the company is working with undisclosed game developers. To show off its technology, Tobii built what it calls the first eye-controlled arcade game, called EyeAsteroids, a spin on the old Atari game, Asteroids.

The REX is also designed to offer Windows 8 users more routine tasks, such as mouse pointing and scrolling down pages.

“Touch is intuitive and efficient if you’re holding a device in your hands, but unless you’re actually holding the device, it isn’t that useful,” he said. “I’m struggling to see that we will be sitting at our desks at work, bending over to touch the screens of our laptops or desktop computers.”

But there are limitations to the usefulness of eye-tracking on its own. A user wouldn’t be able to open a link, for example, without also executing a command of some kind, such as on a keyboard.

“Eyes are perfect for pointing, but lousy for clicking and executing commands, so I don’t expect that we will only use our eyes to interact with computers in the future,” Mr. Eskilsson said.

He said eye-tracking will most likely accompany several emerging methods of interacting with computers.

Body-motion detection systems, like Microsoft Corp.’s MSFT -0.32% Kinect andNintendo‘s 7974.OK 0.00% Wii Remote, have been around for several years, andApple Inc.’s AAPL +0.36% Siri voice-command software for the iPhone can readily tell you the score in the latest 49ers game if you ask her. San Francisco startup Leap Motion Inc. has just started taking preorders for its motion sensor technology that precisely tracks hand gestures and reflects the movements on screen.

Intel Corp. INTC -0.84% is also betting that future computing will abolish the mouse and the keyboard in favor of more intuitive user interfaces. Last year the chip maker invested about $21 million for a 10% stake in Tobii, and it is now distributing software tool kits for independent developers to build PC applications that make use of voice commands, hand gestures and eye tracking. Intel’s chips are in the majority of personal computers, and it has been pushing a newer breed of portable PCs it calls Ultrabooks, some of which have touch screens.

A problem with advanced eye tracking has been the high cost. Five years ago, a package containing an infrared camera, an application processor and software could cost as much as $10,000. While prices have come down and the equipment has become considerably smaller and more power efficient, it remains expensive, with complete packages commanding prices around $1,000.

Tobii hasn’t yet disclosed the retail price of its REX device, but says it is targeted at tech-savvy aficionados rather than everyday computer users. So far, his company has been selling tools for marketing research and kits to help disabled people to operate speech programs and computers with their eyes only.

“Within a year, there will be solutions out there with prices that will feel perfectly reasonable for ordinary users,” Mr. Eskilsson said.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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