Next-gen eye tracking is a game changer for disabled people

Coming to a computer or tablet near you soon, Eye Tribe Tracker technology promises to take gaming to a whole new level. It's a great innovation for every gamer but it could transform the lives of disabled people - and not just those who play games. It is compact, much less expensive than previous solutions and could soon be working with other accessibility options in every mainstream laptop, desktop and mobile device. So what does this new tech offer and how could it change the lives of disabled people?

Fingers off that gadget

Most of us use our fingers to control our computers, tablets and smartphones but there are many other ways of interacting with our gadgets.

You could try voice control (“Hey Siri, what’s my next appointment?”), hand or body gestures (using Microsoft’s Kinect for your Xbox or Leap Motion for your laptop) - and at AbilityNet we’ve assessed people who use their feet to operate a trackball or all ten toes to touchtype at 100 wpm.

Technology is all about choice and it has the power to transform the lives of people who need to do things a little differently.

Keeping an eye on my tech

Another very powerful way of controlling a computer is by eye-movement alone and this is the basis of the new tracker from Eye Tribe. As well as the gaming applications it's designed for this tech could take someone who has no other way of operating a computer or smartphone to a whole new level

At present people who have no body movement or speech and who are only able to move their eyes can control a computer by doing a definite blink (the software ignores the unconscious blinks we do all the time). That action can start a scan through the options and menu items in an application - or all the links in a web page. When the desired item is highlighted, another blink activates it.

Many operating systems already have this capability built-in, including Windows, macOS and iOS. You can use a suitable switch to write documents, send a text or use your favourite apps - whether it’s by monitoring your blinks or activated by a muscle twitch in your cheek, as used by Prof Stephen Hawking etc.

The trouble is that this method can be incredibly time-consuming – especially where there are dozens of items on a screen or you just miss the one you wanted.

The Eye Tribe Tracker to the rescue

Eye-tracking tech is nothing new. It's been available on the PC for nearly two decades (most notably the Tobii eye-tracker) but the specialist hardware and software has cost many thousands of pounds.

Despite this it has revolutionised the lives of people with no other effective method of controlling their computer. Compared to using a blink to scroll through options you can simply look at the item you want to be activated, let your eyes dwell on it for a preset period and it will be clicked.

Dwell control has been added to MacOSX

Just like with switch control, we are now seeing elements of eye-tracking being included in mainstream operating systems such as the new dwell support in the latest version of macOS. The trouble is that special hardware such as a headband or multiple camera system is still required.

But that’s about to change.

Putting eye-tracking within reach of tablets and smartphones

Until now the two main factors preventing eye-tracking tech from coming to mobile devices was the size and price.

The good news is that Eye Tribe technology is far more compact and vastly less expensive than solutions that have come before. It is portable enough to be used with your laptop or tablet, and we may soon see it incorporated into everyday devices, alongside the accessibility settings that currently include speech output for the blind or switch control for the motor impaired.

Eyetribe has made and SDK available to developers

As well as cost and size advantages the Eye Tribe also includes an SDK (software developer kit) which means app developers only need to use a few lines of code for their apps to receive a real-time stream of eye coordinates.

Users could operate their game completely hands-free or, even more crucially, users such as Prof Hawking can put aside his switch and go for the steely gaze instead.

Keep your eyes on the prize!

This is an exciting development in mainstream tech that could be big news for people with very specific accessibility needs. It may be that tech similar to Google’s Project Tango beats the Eye Tribe in bringing eye-tracking to the smartphone – or perhaps Apple, ever-leading in accessibility, will just quietly incorporate it into a future iPhone.

But whatever way it develops, keep your eyes firmly fixed on this space.