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Robotic Eye Tracking Technology

Written By Jason Stutman

Posted July 5, 2013

Many people don’t know this, but Douglas C. Engelbart is one of the single most important names in the history of computing technology.eyetracking

In 1963, Engelbart revealed an invention that has literally touched the hands of almost every person living in a developed nation. In fact, there is a decent (but declining) chance you are using this invention right now.

If you haven’t guessed, I’m talking about the computer mouse – one of the most widely used pieces of technology in recent human history.

But all great things must eventually come to an end: Englebart sadly passed away on Tuesday due to kidney failure at the age of 88.

Interestingly enough, I had decided to write a piece on the death of the computer mouse just hours before hearing this news. And while the metaphor has unintentionally become insensitive, this doesn’t change the fact that Englebart’s death closely coincides with the passing of his most widely adopted invention.

Englebart definitely deserves homage for what he has given to us, but this piece ultimately isn’t about him – it’s about the new technologies that will totally eclipse computer interaction and put the mouse in the same category as the VCR.

A New Era

The fact is, the mouse is no longer the most efficient way to navigate a computer display. The most prominent example of this today is the widely adopted use of touch screen technology.

Touch screens allow users to intuitively scroll in any direction, quickly select any part of a display, and easily zoom in or out of a screen. Furthermore, touch input doesn’t limit where we can use our devices, while the mouse requires a flat and horizontal surface.

At first, touch technology was not much of a threat to the mouse because the latter was tightly married to the PC. The first widespread alternative to the mouse was track pad technology on laptops, but this had a minimal effect due to the comparative ease of navigation that a mouse provides.

For some time, it seemed Engelbart’s device was tightly entrenched in its own little niche. However, touch screens have brought on new problems for the mouse.

First, PCs have seen declining sales due to the widespread use of computing alternatives – mainly touch screen mobile devices. According to Gartner, PC sales were down another 11.2 percent this year, a trend that is expected to continue.

And even if PC sales somehow find a way to rebound, the mouse’s role in computing will likely continue to diminish as a result of touch screen operating systems making their way to the PC market.

Of course, some will argue that the failure of Windows 8 suggests otherwise, but I strongly believe this was the result of lagging hardware more than anything else. Windows 8 was designed for touch-based PCs, which have not yet reached the hands of most consumers. As the hardware catches up, you can expect touch-based OS’s to thrive within the PC market.

But touch is just one method of computer interaction that will contribute to the passing of the computer mouse. There is another budding technology likely to be equally disruptive – and it’s like something out of a robotic science fiction film.


Eye Robot

Prominent futurists often refer to “Singularity,” or the idea of humans and technology merging into one. Depending on your perspective, the prospect of becoming a robot can either be exciting or unsettling. In either case, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to deny our integration into the realm of technology.

Tobii technology and Synaptics Inc. (NASDAQ: SYNA) have recently developed a prototype for a notebook that uses a built-in eye tracking system and a pressure sensitive touch screen to register input and gestures in three dimensions.

Eye tracking systems might sound like a gimmick, but they are actually incredibly useful for certain applications. For instance, if you are reading an e-book or an article, this technology will know when reach the bottom of a page. When this happens, the system will automatically scroll down the page, allowing you to read hands free.

And when it comes to precision, these systems are far more advanced than you might think. The Tobii Rex allows users to accurately highlight text, select icons, and even play iconic video games such as Asteroids, if that’s what you’re into.

Furthermore, eye tracking is a useful safety feature for driving. Companies like Ford (NYSE: F) have already developed systems that can alert sleepy or inattentive drivers by tracking their eye movements.

Samsung (KSE: 005930), Google (NASDAQ: GOOG), and Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) are also getting in on the trend. Samsung has implemented eye tracking into the Galaxy S4 by automatically pausing videos when the user looks away from the screen. Google recently filed a patent for eye tracking in wearable devices, and Microsoft’s Xbox One will even monitor which ads users are looking at.

As for eye-tracking pure plays, Tobii is the leading contender bringing eye tracking to the mainstream. Unfortunately for investors, the company remains private. For now, keep an eye (no pun intended) on Tobii partnerships, such as the aforementioned collaboration with Synaptics. Likewise, pay attention to Intel (NASDAQ: INTC), which bought a 10 percent stake in Tobii in 2012.

Turning progress to profits,

  JS Sig

Jason Stutman

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