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Forget touch screens and voice recognition — what if you could control your computer just by looking at it? Gaze-based interaction has been around for 20 years, used mainly by people with disabilities. But the technology could be available to the masses soon, allowing users to move a cursor with their eyes, or turn the pages of an e-book without lifting a finger.
In Denmark, an eye-control research group has just turned itself into a business, hoping to be part of the next wave of usability.
If you look at the big names in eye-control technology, you'll notice that most companies are based in the U.S. or Northern Europe, places where there's enough private wealth or government support to help people with disabilities pay for pricey specialized equipment.
"But not everyone gets it," says usability expert Sune Alstrup Johansen, of the Gaze Group at the IT University of Copenhagen. "And obviously if you look at the rest of the world, a lot of people don't have access to these expensive eye trackers."
Johansen, a Ph.D. student, spent years working on the question of how to make the systems cheaper.
"After a while, we figured out that probably the best way is to go for a mass-market approach," he says, "where everybody would have this available."
Just over a year ago, Johansen and his colleagues spun off into The Eye Tribe, a company with the goal of making it possible for all people to control mobile devices with their eyes. He explains how it works:
"You have infrared light that is projected toward your face. And the infrared light is then reflected in your pupil. And by seeing those reflections, we can pretty easily — well, not easily," he adds with a laugh — "with our algorithms, we can easily calculate where you're looking."
The snag is the infrared light, which is not a standard feature on most smartphones and tablets. Johansen says that adding it wouldn't be a huge change, as it means switching out a filter on the camera that comes on most mobile devices.
Still, it is a change — and that means convincing manufacturers that mainstream users are going to want it. And what's more mainstream than Fruit Ninja, one of the most popular game apps in the world?
In the game, players swipe across a touch screen to slice flying fruit into pieces. In the Eye Tribe's version, you slice and dice using only your eyes.
When I ask to try it, Javier San Agustin hands me a modified Windows 8 tablet.
"So you hold it like that, and now you need to do the calibration process," he says. "Just follow the dot."
I follow the dot so the computer can get to know my eyes, which sounds easy enough. But it's weird using a sense organ as a muscle. I feel like an unpracticed superhero with lasers coming out of my eyes — which may explain why I somehow manage to fail the calibration (twice).
"Let's try again," San Agustin says.
Once I do pass and actually play Fruit Ninja, it's pretty amazing. But just because what the Eye Tribe is doing is flashy, that doesn't mean it's a sure thing. There are plenty of other companies working on different versions of eye-control and eye-tracking technology. Some may not be as precise, or require changes in hardware.
Still, one way or another, "This will happen," says John Paulin Hansen, who heads the research group that spawned the Eye Tribe. But he adds that it won't happen in a vacuum.
"It's a small part of a very big change that's happening to the way that we interact with computers," he says. "I hope our children will look back on us and think, 'Oh my God, it was so hard back then to use a computer. You had to sit down in front of it all day!' "
For Stig Langvad, change can't come fast enough. He's the head of Denmark's umbrella organization for people with disabilities. Because of a spinal cord injury, Langvad relies on voice control to use his computer, reciting commands like, "Type. Control. Enter."
The system works fine, but it's slow. When he needs to make a selection, Langvad brings up a nine-square grid on his screen, and then narrows in on his target by choosing the appropriate square over and over, shrinking the grid.
And then, finally, he can say, "Mouse click."
If Langvad could just move a cursor with his eyes, he says, "It would be much easier, it would be much faster — and it would be much more silent."
That's not all it would be. For people with disabilities, eye-control technology becoming mainstream would bring another important change.
"Then I can go to any computer, and then I can control it and I can use it, instead of just bringing my own," Langvad says. "So I'll be a part of society on an equal foot, instead of being a special solution."
He adds, "To me, it is going to change the world. And I think it's delicious, to be a part of that process."