The humble webcam has enabled many things: racy adventures on Chatroulette; Skype chats with Grandma; remote learning. With this week's launch of YouEye, the hope is that the webcam will become a powerful—and inexpensive—new tool in user-experience testing for companies looking to quickly evaluate the effectiveness of their websites.
YouEye pays people recruited from the client’s site, outsourced panels, or YouEye’s panel an average of $7 each to evaluate things like online advertising and attention spans by tracking their eyeball movements via their own webcams. The Arlington, Va.-based company is riding on under a million dollars of angel and venture funding, and companies that have expressed interest participating in beta testing include Amazon, Dropbox, Ideo, Living Social, and Zappos, YouEye CEO and founder Kyle Henderson tells Fast Company.
For decades, eye tracking was an option primarily available to companies with of deep pockets and time to spare—proprietary eye-tracking equipment from industry leaders like Tobii cost in the tens of thousands of dollars, and test subjects had to report to labs to be studied outside of their more natural laptop habitats like home offices or couches (not necessarily ideal, since test subjects are notorious for changing behavior when they feel observed). But now, even little startups can have a go at seeing how their content and layouts attract or distract eyeballs. YouEye's recording tech—which runs on any browser in any operating system, no special equipment or futuristic eye-tracking goggles required—and crowdsourcing method slashes the cost per user from thousands of dollars to the price of a McDonald's value meal.
YouEye is aiming at the triple play: usability testing with eye tracking, cheap crowdsourcing, and instant gratification.
"We focus on providing rapid results. Crowdsourced results can be available within minutes after test is completed," says Henderson. "YouEye wants to enable companies to test iteratively everyday, adding that the quick turnaround will allow companies to improve daily instead of monthly with rapid audience validation.
Many factors needed to converge to enable webcams to track eyes. The webcam was the easy part—by 2010, Logitech alone already sold more than 80 million webcams. Then broadband pipes had to get fat enough to record streaming video, sound, and mouse movement data quickly enough to be processed in the server-side cloud.
Next the brains in the operation—computer vision, machine learning, and statistical algorithmic models—required a little tinkering. According to Henderson, YouEye's technology builds on more than 10 years of academic research from schools like Carnegie Mellon, Johns Hopkins, MIT, and Stanford. Henderson calls the issues that got ironed out "small problems," like environment normalization—processing weird backgrounds when people are lying in bed, sitting at school, or at the office. And it continues to evolve.
"What’s crazy is what’s coming next. Facial recognition to decode emotions, and detect demographics," says Henderson. "This technology can also be applied to lower-res cameras on mobile phones." Henderson says they will be launching with an iPhone app testing product.
In the last year, competing eye-tracking companies GazeHawk and MRC have also emerged with webcam eye tracking technology. MRC is funded in part by industry leader Tobii, according to CEO Mathias Plank. The partnership means MRC inherited a similar enterprise model where they evaluate client goals and negotiate pricing, rather than YouEye’s a la carte pricing. MRC has a stated 48-hour turnaround, while GazeHawk is a week. GazeHawk co-founder Joe Gershenson says the company requires that much time for quality assurance.
So is YouEye's immediate-turnaround approach really better? Depends who you ask.
"Any usability research tool or method is about both data collection and data analysis," Nick Gould, CEO of New York City's Catalyst Group, a consulting firm specializing in usability optimization that has clients like Ford, The New York Times, and Doubleclick, tells Fast Company. "The remote, unmoderated tools do a decent job of data collection under certain circumstances, but they provide little in the way of automated analysis of the results." He also thinks it would be difficult to perform large-scale studies when each test needs to be individually analyzed.
Market-research veteran Stephen Tile, CEO of Northstar Research Partners, says he's seen the industry go from "being data starved to data choked. We are certainly not close to any of this being 'do it yourself' research."
Still, two key reasons companies do not have active usability initiatives are time and budget. YouEye thinks it is positioned to address both issues. If you don't have the time or cash for a state-of-the-art lab-based usability study, maybe it's time to consider firing up those webcams.
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[Images: Flickr user iamthemoonstar]