LAS VEGAS--At CES this year, Tobii, which has been making technology that watches what you're looking at on a screen, is showing off its gaze-controlled demo laptop and introducing its eye control interface for Windows 8.
I first met Barbara Barclay, general manager of Tobii North America, at the D9 conference last June, and we had a talk about my reservations over eye control. On paper, this technology is incredibly cool and sci-fi-ish, but my issue is this: We use our eyes to see, not to control. There's a big cognitive difference between looking at something on a screen and touching it (or mousing to it). Eyes are input devices, not output. That's why gaze tracking for analytics makes sense. But for controlling a computer interface?
I sat with Barclay and Tobii's Anders Olsson at CES today and got to try the latest from Tobii. One of the key tenets with the Windows 8 demo is that it uses a combination of touch and eyesight for the interface. To select a tile to launch, for example, you press down the Windows key, look at the tile for the app you want, and then release the key. That ameliorates the issue of having your computer go off and do something when your mind or gaze wanders. It is easier to look at something on a screen than it is to mouse over it, in terms of actual speed and effort, so this should work.
Tobii works by shooting near-infrared lights at your eyes, and then uses two IR cameras to capture "the reflective point of retina plus the glint off the cornea," I was told. From this it builds a 3D model of your eye. Tobii requires new hardware compared to the cameras in PCs now; I saw the demo on a custom-built machine that used to be an HP laptop. No word yet on what the premium will be for the technology. When touchscreens first came out on laptops, the premium for that technology was around $200 to $400.
In my rushed demo at a casino cafe here, I found it actually does work. The Tobii system knows where you're looking, and provides some feedback on that, but it doesn't actually do anything until you press or release a control. I did not expect to like it, but I did. It is intuitive to use, and very fast. Tobii has done a good job of making your glances into workable input signals.
Video coming soon.