April 17, 2024

Bright Ideas: Novelties: Pointing With Your Eyes, to Give the Mouse a Break

There’s no more fiddling with the mouse on these computers. Just look at a particular location on the screen, and the cursor goes there instantly, ready for you to open a folder or to send an e-mail (at which point you need to use old-fashioned keys).

The laptops were created by Tobii Technology, an eye-tracking company based in Sweden, and Lenovo, the Chinese computer maker. The two combined forces to build 20 prototypes that show off the technology’s potential.

No special headsets or goggles are needed. The eye tracker is built into the laptop lid, complete with sensors, lights and processing capabilities.

I tried out one of the new PC’s and, indeed, found that eye contact made for a speedy interface. I could choose a spot on a map just by looking at it, touch a key to zoom in, and then “walk around” the map by eye, looking toward the top of the screen to travel north, or down to pan south. Folders could also be chosen with a glance — the cursor seemed to arrive at my intended spot the instant I looked.

The eye-control feature was a natural for playing games, too: I blocked asteroids menacing the Earth with an annihilating look and a keyboard click, giving new meaning to the term “dead-eyed.”

The PC’s are demonstration models. Actual products won’t be on the shelf for about two years, said Barbara Barclay, an executive at Tobii.

If the technology catches on, PC’s won’t be the only products with built-in gaze control, people in the field say. In the future, when you are looking at villains and princesses on a video game player, they will be able to stare directly back into your eyes. And televisions are also getting in on the act. Roel Vertegaal, director of the human media lab at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, which researches new user technologies, has designed TV’s with built-in eye tracking so that the TV pauses when you leave the room and resumes when you return.

The eye-tracking technology is a genuine time-saver for typing, roughly halving the time needed for many chores, Dr. Vertegaal said. “We’ve done experiments,” he said — for example, when people are working on several screens, any of which can be activated with a glance. “It’s clear you can speed up interactions by a factor of two.” It is also easier on human hands that are prone to repetitive stress injury, he said, as they will give computer users some rest from using the mouse.

The PCs look like ordinary large laptops, but with a slight bulge at the back for the eye tracker. When you lift the lid and turn the computer on, the tracker starts operating directly beneath the monitor. In it are lights that illuminate the pupil, and optical sensors that pick up the reflection of light hitting the cornea. Computer chips use the sensor data to calculate where your eyes are looking, directing the cursor there. Ms. Barclay said a gaze could pinpoint a screen area roughly the size of a dime.

EYE-TRACKING technology for computers isn’t new, said Andrew T. Duchowski, a professor of computer science at Clemson University in South Carolina, and author of the book “Eye Tracking Methodology.” Stand-alone eye trackers from Tobii and others can be connected to computers, for example, so that quadriplegics can operate an onscreen keyboard. The work can be done entirely by sight, but it is a slow process, as the gaze must rest or dwell for a quarter- or a half-second before the keystroke is registered.

“But embedding eye tracking inside a laptop lid is a novelty,” he said, especially if it can be done at consumer-friendly prices. High-performance eye trackers typically cost tens of thousands of dollars, although John Elvesjö, chief technology officer at Tobii, said the price for its built-in trackers was likely to be far less once they were in mass production.

Michael Holmes, a professor of communication studies at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., said the new eye-tracking PC’s would benefit people with limited mobility in their limbs. “The present systems they typically use are expensive,” he said. “Anything that reduces the cost and complexity will benefit them, and is important work.”

The Tobii-Lenovo PC must be calibrated for each individual. Before using it, you look at locations on the screen for about 15 seconds while the computer and cameras determine your eye measurements.

The eye tracking works for about 95 percent of the people who try it, Ms. Barclay of Tobii said. It doesn’t work for wearers of trifocals, she said, and it didn’t work in my living room when the sun suddenly appeared outside, shining directly in my eyes. (I changed position and all was well.)

Consumers, of course, might be afraid that a casual glance could prompt an unintended action. The fear is that “you could look at the ‘send’ button on the credit card Web page,” Dr. Vertegaal said, “and end up accidentally buying something.”

That won’t happen with the Tobii-Lenovo computers, Ms. Barclay said. “You point with your eyes,” she said, “but you haven’t selected until you confirm with a click.”

E-mail: novelties@nytimes.com.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=cb22c6528d48d9d66779985eedf3c0d9

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