Now, look here: the implications of eye-tracking

The thrills and the dangers of eye-tracking technology.

Look here. Now look there. Registered.

If you haven’t experienced eye-tracking software yet, you’re in for an eye-opener (sorry). The startup scene has many companies working on the technology, which is getting more sophisticated and cheaper by the day. And the implications are huge.

Your smartphone probably already has eye-tracking capability. Israeli startup uMoove has developed a software-based eye tracker that follows your gaze with your phone camera. I downloaded their concentration-training app uHealth (iOS) which asks you to “aim” your gaze at yellow and blue birds. Ok, I couldn’t get it to work (it wanted me to respond to voice cues I couldn’t hear), but the concept is amazing. They have demoed a game in which you direct your avatar with your eyes. Very cool. I don’t know how reliable it will turn out to be, or whether wearing glasses will affect the outcome, but it is very cool.


from the uHealth app

Technology company Tobii is also exploring eye control in gaming, but with an external tracking device. This promo video gives you an idea of some of the possibilities:

This video from Tobii gives a deeper idea as to the potential for really innovative game development:

The new Assassin’s Creed for PC due out in March (“Rogue”) will incorporate eye-tracking controls via an external tracker. Understandably, the gaming sector is pretty excited. The scene changes according to what you’re looking at. Move your eyes left, and the field of vision on the screen moves left. Look away, and the game pauses.

screenshot from Assassin's Creed: Rogue

screenshot from Assassin’s Creed: Rogue

It sounds exciting. But is that much “reality” in a game a good thing? Might the boundaries between our real world reactions and motor skills start to blend with our reactions and motor skills in front of a screen? Might we not start to “see” our eyes as just another tool, necessary for manipulating our environment? In an interview, the producer declared “It gives you such a good control over the game, and you’ll feel so inside the game, that you’ll never want to use something [sic] else.” And that is a good thing, how? Substitute the word “game” for “experience”, and you’ll see where this is heading.

Tobii has also developed eyeglasses that track the movements of your pupils. This is a marketer’s dream, to know how the viewer’s eyes move over the screen and where they linger, to quantify which positions are optimal for ads. Offline, as well. The glasses record the movement of your eyes over the merchandising, which could take the design of physical stores to a new level of efficiency. Usability testing for webs or physical machines could become more detailed and powerful than ever. Just think how this technology could improve the setting up of IKEA furniture…

… or learning how to cook. Combine the eye tracking glasses with dedicated cooking apps that read you the instructions and measurements as you move around the kitchen, and following recipes becomes, cough, a piece of cake. The same concept could make setting up the DVD or the wireless stereo so much easier.

I imagine that it’s a question of time before eye-tracking software gets incorporated into car windshields. The car you’re driving slows to a crawl if you’re not looking at the road, and gently pulls over if your eyes close for more than a second.

Just think of the effect it could have on how we read: no more pressing of a button or swiping to move on to the next page. Would that affect our concentration? Our understanding? Flipping pages has long been the percussion in our reading. It marks the pace, it signals a new beginning, it sounds like advancement. Take away that percussion, and reading becomes a continuous flow of words. Obviously there’s nothing wrong with that, but it will change the reading experience, which could end up having an impact on how we learn and think.

In education, the teacher can more closely follow student’s comprehension of a subject by seeing where their eyes linger, and where their eyes completely skip over an object on the page. The teacher can also more accurately tell if the student is paying attention. Or, more importantly, the teacher can tell what does attract the student’s attention. Learning materials can be re-designed with that information in mind.

As far as we know, the uses that are being investigated have convenience and efficiency as the main goal. It’s possible that reading will be a more enjoyable experience if we don’t have to put down our cocktail to turn the page. And more efficient marketing will lead to more efficient use of media and space, a benefit which could end up offsetting the increased possibility that we end up buying something or subscribing to a service that we didn’t absolutely need. As far as we know, the end uses are relatively benign.

screenshot from uMoove

screenshot from uMoove

For now. But in the rush to accumulate data on everything that we do, isn’t following our eye movements moving dangerously near the territory of tracking what we think? UMoove practically says so on its website: “Eyes are the window to the brain… Track the eye, track the brain.” Do we want that much data about our thoughts and instincts to be tracked and recorded? Controlling our eye movements is extremely difficult, and they often wander to the rhythm of our subconscious. Just as gazing into someone’s eyes is the height of intimacy, the idea that third-party trackers know where our eyes go makes me a bit uncomfortable. It’s too personal.

However, it obviously is a technology that needs further development. For a person who cannot move his or her arms or legs, being able to turn a page with your eyes would fill an unfairly limited existence with intellectual promise and potential. And giving us an extra “limb” with which to activate certain actions would make high-stress, precision tasks such as surgery, engineering or even combat less restricted by our physical limitations.

Eye-tracking is yet another example of the double-edged sword of technological advancement. Huge leaps forward in productivity and experience, with new doors opening to control and manipulation. Where is the line that separates the useful from the dangerous? And even if it were possible to know that, who would be in charge of deciding where it was? Personally, I’m very excited about where we’re heading. The knowledge, the efficiencies, the solutions… And yet, too much tracking, too much information about our activities, habits, even thoughts, makes us vulnerable. No one knows where the tipping point is going to be. And will we even notice once we have passed it?

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