By Jeffrey Van Camp
A couple years ago, Tobii blew our minds when it showed us its eye tracking laptop, which let you control your mouse cursor with your eyes.
But the laptop had one weakness: you still needed your hands. You couldn’t type with it and you had to still press the mouse button to execute commands. Eye tracking seemed like the next big thing, but it’s been held back – until now. Last week, the Tobii folks stopped by DT’s NY office and showed us what we’ve always wanted: an eye-tracking tablet where your eyes can do it all.
Tobii calls it the EyeMobile and it lets you control all of Windows with only your eyes.
How it looks
The EyeMobile unit we saw looks like an armored Microsoft Surface. A metal cradle comfortably holds the tablet at whatever angle you’d like. Beneath it is a small, hot dog-sized black sensor bar, which uses two infrared cameras to locate the exact position of your eyes with incredible precision and speed. It connects to the Surface (or any Windows 8 tablet) via USB.
Tobii has its own custom Windows 8 desktop application that layers itself on top of Windows (sorry to the dozens of you out there with RT devices, this isn’t compatible). Once you turn it on, the app will always run in the background, and you’re ready to stop using your hands.
Learning to ride
Learning how to control a tablet with only your eyes isn’t the easiest thing. As much as Tobii would like, Windows is still built around touch input, so to make it work, the Tobii app has to teach you how to make your eyes work more like a mouse or finger. This takes some time to get used to, but for those who may want, or need, to use a computer or mobile device without their hands, learning is no obstacle.
Look mom, no hands!
Tobii’s interface starts with a black and blue bar that sits on the right (unless you’re doing something on the right side of the screen, in which case it would move to the left). This black bar has several functions on it like left mouse click, right mouse click, keyboard, settings, and menu. By looking at any one of them for just a second (or a fraction of a second), you activate them. Let’s start with the overlay.
To replicate Microsoft’s new swiping interface for Windows 8, Tobii made it a lot simpler. Instead of having to use your finger to swipe from the top, bottom, right, or left sides of the screen, you can now just look at any of them to open the menus.
Here’s how you do some basic things:
- Open Recent Apps: Glance at the menu icon on the right then to the left side of the screen.
- Open Charms Bar: Glance at the menu icon on the right then to the right side of the screen.
- Go back to Start screen: Glance at the menu icon on the right then to the bottom-left corner of the screen.
- Left click on anything: Glance at the Left Mouse icon on the right then to any app or anywhere on the screen to open it.
- Right click on anything: Glance at the Right Mouse icon on the right then at anything you’d like to right click on it, or see more options.
- Type: Glance at the Keyboard icon to bring up Tobii’s special keyboard and begin typing wherever you are. Looking at each key will type that letter.
As you can see, everything you do has one added step. Before you do anything, you have to first look at that action’s icon on the Tobii bar. It’s not hard, once you get used to it, but it’s a foreign concept. We’re used to clicking and touching exactly where we want to do what we want. Here, you don’t have to touch anything, but you do have to look away and then look back at your target to accomplish anything. Luckily, your eyes move a lot faster than your hands.
We were a little slow at first, and had to turn down the sensitivity and click speed (located in settings) of the sensor while we learned the ropes, but after a few minutes, we turned the sensitivity up, and within 15 minutes we were flying through. Granted, this isn’t the first time we’ve tried out Tobii’s eye tracking. It would likely take a few days to a week before a first-timer is used to this and moving at full speed.
Who would use this?
Tobii’s technology still has some rough edges, but it’s fun to try, fun to use, and would work wonders if you could ever play a first-person shooter with it. Unfortunately, the price is still far too high for an ordinary person to afford. The eye tracker inside the EyeMobile stand costs $3,900 on its own, and the stand costs an additional $350. Reps at Tobii told me that a little volume would go a long way. If it can secure contracts and sell more of these, the price will fall, dramatically. However, the first market Tobii is targeting may be able to afford the big dollar signs.
The EyeMobile is cool technology to you and me, but for someone who is paralyzed, locked in (can only move their eyes), or any other kind of disability that makes it difficult for them to use their arms. Representatives told me that the ability to use a computer and interact on the Web is a human right, and EyeMobile can do that. Tobii is hoping to get the device covered by insurance companies for those who are hurt in this way.
For example, former BMX biker Shawn Murray is one of EyeMobile’s biggest advocates. Fans of biking know that Murray was a seven-time expert British champion and six-time UK National champion before he even turned 16. However, in 2007, while doing his trademark double back flip, he crashed, damaging his spinal cord and leaving him paralyzed from the shoulders down. It wasn’t until he began using Tobii’s tool that he was able to start using a computer again, run a business, and live more independently.
Still on track
In the last couple years, we’ve seen Tobii debut an eye tracking laptop, an eye tracking arcade game, make inroads into Windows 8, and now its technology can control any Windows 8 device (tablet or PC) without any physical input needed at all. We’ve always known that eye tracking could one day help us destroy the competition in Battlefield or Call of Duty, but now we know it can serve a far more noble purpose, too. Everyone should have the ability to use a tablet or computer. The prices still need to drop, and Tobii is still working on software for other operating systems, like Mac OS X, Android, and iOS for iPad, but things are moving in the right direction. Give it some years, and you may have an eye tracking tablet of your own.