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SPIE Professional October 2013

Eye Tracking

Advances in eye-tracking technology enable communication for the disabled and open pathways to innovation.

By Henrik Eskilsson

Photonics for a Better World logo

Once mainly a topic discussed by academics, advertisers, and behavioral researchers, today you can find news about “eye tracking” nearly every day all around the world. Eye tracking has been heralded as one of the “next big things” for consumer products and a technology that could completely change how we interact with our world. 

Eye tracking dates back to early, primitive research techniques used in the 1800s in human psychology and advertising, but the most remarkable evolution in the technology and its applications has occurred just within the past decade. Tobii, founded in 2001, has pioneered the modern concept of eye-tracking technology with a disruptive approach that frees the subjects being tracked from the equipment.

This breakthrough was possible due to advancements in microtechnology and photonic devices, including image sensors and illuminators, combined with a fresh approach to hardware and software engineering that enables eye tracking without a subject-stabilizing element, such as a bite bar or head gear.

This major milestone allowed new kinds of research such as analysis of child and infant development and advancements in communications tools for the disabled, all with a subject sitting and moving in a natural manner in front of a computer.

The new eye trackers, in turn, have opened pathways for the technology to travel even further into new products for more industries and nearly endless possibilities for applications.

Alternative communication solutions and other applications

Think of the tasks you do every day. Do you operate a vehicle, shop, or use a computer, smartphone, tablet, TV, or gaming console?

Most likely the answer is yes. In the very near future, all of these functions could include eye tracking in some capacity.

Computers, tablets, and smartphones are not just tools we use; they have become extensions of ourselves. We live through them in socializing, running errands, working, having meetings, etc. As eye tracking is integrated into each of these devices, consumers may benefit from greater speed, increased productivity, and reduced stress.

image for eye-tracking technology articleBy using our natural gaze point as part of our user controls, we can experience a more efficient method of obtaining and sharing information and eliminate an interaction barrier between ourselves and our most valued gadgets.

Tobii has released a range of augmentative and alternative communication solutions that help individuals with speech impairments communicate and experience a greatly enhanced quality of life.

Assistive technologies and eye tracking make a natural pair to allow people with disabilities to regain independence and maintain communication.

We’ve already seen industry giants such as Samsung and Microsoft introduce eye detection, one of the simplest forms of eye tracking, into smartphones. However, more robust uses of eye tracking will be coming soon for PCs, laptops, and tablets in the mass consumer market.

It will also likely extend to other products and evolve to give all consumers ways to interact with and control their home electronics systems and environmental systems for lighting, temperature, and security.

Since gamers have longed for tools that will help them have more immersive, personal, and flexible movement and control during play, we predict that eye tracking will also soon move into the gaming space.

There are virtually unlimited opportunities for eye tracking to adopt and integrate fascinating new innovations using eye-tracking technology to a wide array of products.

Eye tracking in medicine and autos

As vehicles continue to get smarter and safer, eye trackers could offer advanced driver assistance and drowsiness detection for accident prevention in the automotive industry. Eye tracking provides a natural and intuitive look-and-click interface that will help auto companies design connected-vehicle features and infotainment systems that reduce driver distraction.

Eye tracking can be integrated easily with existing auto-safety systems, such as lane-departure warnings and automatic brake assistance.


The eye gaze provides a very efficient way of pointing. We do it all the time with other humans. Eye tracking technology enables us to use our gaze in interaction with computers and machines. It’s fast, intuitive, and natural.

Ergonomics and medical-imaging control can be improved by using gaze interaction with x-rays, surgical procedures, and ultrasounds. Imagine if surgeons could zoom into images and control the computer interface in operating rooms using just their eyes. These futuristic concepts are now a possibility.

Eye tracking can also be a monitoring and educational tool, to understand where a doctor has been looking and keep track of which areas a doctor has analyzed and which have not.

Eye tracking can also give government and law-enforcement teams enhanced methods for data protection and security.

Gaze interaction can be used to guarantee quality of human-operator attention, for example, recording and monitoring the real-time attention and vigilance of workers scanning bags at airports.

Athletic performance can also be optimized through eye tracking. Truly understanding what contributes to a player’s hand-eye coordination, along with studying attentional focus, trajectory estimations, and visual search strategies, could eventually have a profound impact on how athletes and coaches play and train.

Recent advancements in sensing technology capabilities and the development of easy-to-use analysis software have led to an exponential growth in the scope and breadth of research capabilities. From usability, advertising, and shopper research to developmental psychology, neuroscience, and nonhuman primate research, eye tracking is proving to be an essential, portable, and cost-effective tool in gathering critical data.

Tobii introduced the first consumer eye-tracking peripheral earlier this year, and mass-market peripheral products for computers are expected to be available next year. The first general consumer products with eye tracking embedded and integrated into user-interface controls are expected to be available in 2014-2015.

Simplicity is the challenge for market adoption

When you move products and services into new markets, there are always challenges.

As eye tracking moves closer to commercial market adoption, one of the biggest challenges is convincing the mass consumer audience (as well as investors, media, and industry analysts) that the technology is truly as remarkable as promised.

This is especially true when the concept of gaze interaction is something that can only be fully understood when people try it themselves in a personal demonstration.

One of Tobii’s goals is to make its eye tracking technology work for everyone. This means creating solutions that support a variety of eye shapes and vision capabilities as well as accommodating a broad spectrum of user types.

Creating a simple eye tracker is … simple, but Tobii invests heavily in R&D to ensure it is offering the most accurate and precise technology, without limiting users. Identifying how eye tracking can be successfully and seamlessly integrated into numerous applications while making it easy to use is both an ongoing challenge and opportunity.

NIR reflection on the cornea

Tobii eye trackers are based on the principle of corneal-reflection tracking.

First, one or several near-infrared illuminators create reflection patterns on the cornea of the eyes. Image sensors then register the image of the user’s eyes.

Image processing is used to find the eyes, detect the exact position of the pupil and/or iris, and identify the correct reflections from the illuminators and their exact positions.

Mathematical models of the eye are then used to calculate the eyes’ position in 3D and the point of gaze.


Eye tracking step by step
An eye trackers is a device that uses projection patterns and optical sensors to gather data about gaze direction or eye movements with very high accuracy. Most eye trackers are based on the fundamental principle of corneal-reflection tracking.
Privacy and health issues a concern for some

Other challenges for successfully commercializing this technology center on privacy and health concerns. Will companies be able to monitor everything that I’m looking at on the screen? Will websites now serve me ads as I look at various sections of the screen?

As eye tracking is integrated into computers, consumers will retain just as much control over how information about their activities is shared as they do today – simply through user control settings and security preferences. Eye trackers being created for gaze interaction will not have the ability to store or analyze the data, and user gaze data will not be stored in cookies.

However, privacy issues are still a concern for some. In recognition of these concerns, Tobii has developed its technology in a way that prevents gaze data from being stored, analyzed, or used in a way that violates user privacy, regardless of whether it’s a Tobii product or a partner product or application.

Are there safety issues related to using an eye tracker? The simple answer is no; the sensors used are not harmful to the human eye. Eye trackers use near-infrared illumination, similar to what is already used in many industrial, scientific, consumer, and medical applications and devices. Also, all of Tobii’s eye trackers have been approved by certified labs according to the international standard for different lamps and lamp systems.

Eye tracking vs. eye recognition

It is extremely exciting to see the potential of eye tracking across industries come to fruition. As more eye-tracking-enabled technology emerges, it will be important to understand that not all of the types of technology being used – or the end effect – are the same.

For example, the type of eye tracking being integrated into mobile phones today is “eye recognition” software in which the device responds to whether the user’s eyes are looking at it, are open, or are closed.

This enables basic functionality that is very different from Tobii’s eye tracking technology which enables the user’s gaze point to become a selecting device and makes the entire interface more responsive to the user.

Tobii’s approach and solutions integrates eye tracking into systems and applications as a central part of the user interface to provide a richer user experience, making our most beloved electronic devices faster, easier, and more fun to use.

More information on how eye tracking works.

photo of Henrik eskilsson – Henrik Eskilsson is CEO and co-founder of Tobii Technology. Prior to founding Tobii, he founded Trampolinspecialisten, a Swedish sporting goods trading company, and worked as a project manager with Hotsip, a provider of communications infrastructure software. Eskilsson has an MS in international industrial engineering and management from Linköping University (Sweden).


About Tobii Technology

Tobii Technology was founded in 2001 by Henrik Eskilsson, its current CEO; John Elvesjö, CTO; and Mårten Skogö, chief science officer.

The founders sold the first Tobii Eye Tracker in 2002.

Since then, the company has become a global leader in eye-tracking and gaze-interaction technology, delivering gaze solutions and OEM eye-tracking components for computers, games, vehicles, and other applications.

Tobii’s eye-tracking technology has accelerated the development of gaze interaction in personal computing, transformed research in many fields, and enabled communication for thousands of people with special needs.

Based in Sweden, Tobii has a global presence with offices in the U.S., China, Germany, Japan, and Norway and a worldwide network of resellers and partners.

Community of eye tracking developers

Tobii is actively working to build a community of partners and developers to introduce gaze interaction to nearly every aspect of daily life.

From Web navigation to computer aided design to gaming and entertainment, eye tracking has the potential to enhance the consumer experience and increase efficiency in a myriad of applications.

Tobii has worked with partners to develop wide-ranging commercial and research applications.

The Tobii Partner Program, for instance, gives developers tools and resources to develop interactive eye-tracking applications. By adding Tobii Gaze to existing controls, companies can transform the user experience, fundamentally making user and technology interaction faster, more intuitive, and more fun.

As eye tracking is integrated into more applications, Tobii hopes to bring a richer user experience to consumers and provide a more natural way to integrate our daily lives with technology.

Photonics for a Better World

Read more articles and blog posts celebrating the many ways that photonics are applied in creating a better world:

Have a question or comment about this article? Write to us at spieprofessional@spie.org.

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DOI: 10.1117/2.4201310.02

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