In 1999, John Elvesjö, a 21-year-old Swedish engineering student, was experimenting with an infrared sensor to track movement. He had gotten the device to follow two tossed krona coins when he turned it around to look at it—and noticed something surprising. The sensor began following the movement of his eyes.
That discovery could change the way we interact with computers. Elvesjö, now 33, is co-founder of Tobii Technology, a company in Stockholm that's developing the first mass-market eye-tracking device. It will let users do many of the things they now do with a mouse, just by looking at the screen. Stare at a folder to open it. Read to the bottom of a page of an e-mail, and the program skips to the next. Aim your video-game laser cannon without twitching your trigger finger. The device directs harmless infrared light, similar to a TV remote control's, at the user's eyes and captures reflections that shift with the user's gaze. Software pinpoints where the user is looking within 2 millimeters.
Eye tracking isn't a new idea. For years scientists have used equipment made by Tobii and others for neurological research; disabled people use it to type messages by looking at on-screen keys. But the technology has been unwieldy and expensive—it often requires elaborate headgear to keep the camera pointed at the eye, and prices start in the thousands of dollars. Elvesjö's team was able to design a device that's small enough and cheap enough for everyday use. The new eye tracker is a little larger than a Snickers bar and snaps below the screen of a laptop or a desktop computer. No headgear required.
In March, PC maker Lenovo demonstrated a prototype laptop with built-in Tobii technology. Although he won't name names, Elvesjö says computer hardware and software companies are interested in licensing the eye-tracking system. He adds that consumers will be able to buy separate clip-on devices within a year for just under $200. "We've never had anything that cheap, small, and well functioning," Elvesjö says. "The goal is to put it in every desktop and laptop."
Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm; dropped out
World's first mass-market eye-tracking technology
Aiming video-game laser cannons with a glance