Tracking eye movement is more than just a great way to test website usability. It's also a way to help the disabled, to remotely drive cars and to reinvent multimedia reading.

From open-source software that runs on hardware built of old webcams to expensive contact lenses and glasses, a new era of eye-controlled tools are developing at a rapid rate. What follows is a summary of some of the ways that these new designs are going to make it easier to read and write not just on the Web but also when it comes to controlling objects in real life.

  • Eye Tracking Basics

  • The scientific study of eye movement began in the 19th century; Alfred Yurbus developed today's modern tracking techniques in the 1950s. Yurbus' often-quoted 1967 book, Eye Movements and Vision, explains how a person's purpose and motivation affects how they move their eyes. Below, Yarbus shows how eye movement over a picture is different for each task assigned to the viewer.

    The most recent utilization of this type of research comes via Tobii's Eye Tracking Glasses, which, according to Internet Retailer, sell for $45,000 a pair. Large corporations such as Procter and Gamble haven't shied away from the price of the glasses because it allows for highly precise testing of how branding, product placement and marketing work for target demographics both in the store and on the Web.

    A Web-Connected Contact Lens?

    Last summer we wrote about Babak Amir Parviz and his University of Washington students embedding LEDs into contact lenses. Says Parviz, "We already see a future in which the humble contact lens becomes a real platform, like the iPhone is today, with lots of developers contributing their ideas and inventions. As far as we're concerned, the possibilities extend as far as the eye can see." Parviz's in-depth article about this subject can be found at IEEE Spectrum. .

    Smart Words Watch Your Eyes As You Read

    Text 2.0 is software that discerns and reacts to reader eye movement via an infrared light and camera. Eventually, according to EyeTrackingUpdate, "If a reader takes a little more time on a certain word or phrase, eye tracking could trigger a translation, pronunciation or sound effect, a biography on a name, a definition, or an image/animation to supplement and provide meaning." Created by the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence, this software works with Tobii Eye Tracking technology and will soon be able to recognize when we are skimming and respond by slightly fading non-essential words. Or if your eyes react strongly to a significant passage on a page it could be highlighted and shared with colleagues.

    In the same way the Internet thrives on links, eye tracking technology can help us expand the ability of those links to not just more information, but to also control real-life objects - also known as the Internet of Things.

    eyeDriver Allows You to Steer A Car With Your Eyes

    The research vehicle Spirit of Berlin is a fully automated driverless car. Software called eyeDriver allows a remote driver to steer this car with eye movements. Using similar tools as Text 2.0 eye movements are converted to signals that control the steering wheel. If the remote driver averts their gaze, the car will begin to brake until the driver has put their eyes back on the road. The project, which is funded by the German Ministry of Education and Research, goes by the name AutoNOMOS and intends to make cars safer by eliminating user error, as well as by developing semi-autonomous and entirely autonomous driving.

    Affordable Eye Tracking

    In a blog post last November, Clicktale claimed to be "The definitive method for conducting accurate eye-tracking on a massive scale at a fraction of the cost." There is also OpenEyes, which promises open-source eye tracking for the masses. Then there is the Ycombinator-funded GazeHawk, which has dropped eye-tracking research costs for websites under the $50 per test subject barrier. And because websites as big as Google get accurate results using only a half dozen test subjects, eye tracking analytics is now affordable for most businesses. Here's a sample of a GazeHawk eye tracking heat map:

    Helping the Disabled

    Tony Quan is a legendary Los Angeles graffiti writer, publisher and activist. His tag name is Tempt One. Quan was diagnosed with ALS in 2003 and other than the movement of his eyes, he's completely paralyzed. Free Art and Technology (FAT), OpenFrameworks and the Graffiti Research Lab got in touch with the Not Impossible Foundation to bring together a group of open-source hackers to create Eye Writer. Now Quan has virtually returned to the streets to again tag walls, this time with a hi-power video projector. Thought his artist days are over, eye tracking has freed Tempt One to express again. With it he says, "Art is a tool of empowerment and social change, and I consider myself blessed to be able to create and use my work to promote health reform, bring awareness about ALS and help others."

    The Eyewriter from Evan Roth on Vimeo.

    If you know of other innovations in eye-tracking software and hardware that have not yet been mentioned please add your links and comments below.

    First photo from Paul Sapiano.
    Second photo from WikiCommons.