Thinking Tech

The rise of eye-tracking computers

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Researchers have developed software that can authenticate users by measuring eye movements, but eye-tracking has applications far beyond security.

Beeping, flashing retinal scanners are a constant, and dare I say tired, fixture in films. And why not? They serve as convenient shorthand for wealth and technological sophistication, and their utility is easy to convey.

Rare as they may be, scanners like this do exist. But researchers in Israel have developed software that can identify individuals based on eye movement, and don't require hardware any more sophisticated than a laptop with a decent webcam. The company behind the tech, ID-U, describes how it works:

The technology is based on the uniqueness of a person's eye-movement patterns. The person to be identified (user) watches a moving target (visual stimulus) on a monitor, while a small, low-resolution camera acquires the user's eye-movement response; a processing unit, either inside the local device or remotely located at another physical site, uses both the stimuli and response to identify the user.

Assuming that ID-U's method for establishing a unique signature for each user is reliable, this could prove to be a cost-effective alternative to other biometric scanners, and could even have low-cost applications in consumer products--say, a laptop with a webcam.

ID-U's scanner is just the latest in chain of products and concepts that track eye motion. The now-defunct GUIDe program at Stanford conducted extensive research on designing user interfaces for eye-tracking software. Researchers at Dartmouth University came up with cellphone program that allowed gaze-based phone navigation earlier this year. In 2009, EU-funded COGAIN network released software to allow people without the use of their hands, or fine motor skills, to play popular computer games like World of Warcraft with simple eye gestures. Before it became the subject of experimental projects like those, eye-tracking software was in fairly wide use as a tool for the paralyzed to interact with computers.

Eye-tracking's passage into the mainstream, though, may not come though accessibility efforts or security tools. The Fraunhofer Institute recently showcased a "non-intrusive, markerless computer vision based modules for human computer interaction," which they believe will be "essential" in the design of auto-stereoscopic 3D displays, which don't require glasses. (This one among the types of displays that James Cameron believes will eventually replace current stereoscopic displays, as reported on SmartPlanet.)

The one thing all these technologies have in common, besides their ophthalmological fixations, is that they haven't really borne any fruit yet. New or old, they've been relegated to the fringes, for technological immaturity, lack of practical uses, or both.

Work by companies like ID-U, though, could usher gaze-tracking into the mainstream. It's authentication system, with a simple calibration scheme and low cost, could prove useful in wide applications--think ATM terminals and credit/debit card readers--where expensive retinal scanners, or worryingly fallible fingerprint scanners, aren't appropriate.

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John Herrman

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor John Herrman is a freelance writer based in New York City. He is also contributing editor at Gizmodo. He holds a degree from the University of Edinburgh. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure