Most of us control our technology using our fingers and hands, whether that’s through touch screens or a mouse. But for years, individuals with disabilities have used their eyes as a way to control digital interfaces. Tablets like the Tobii Dynavox EyeMobile+ give people with cerebral palsy and other conditions the ability to use the internet, communicate, and even play games using just their eyes as a mouse.
Now, researchers are experimenting with ways to bring eye-tracking technology to general users. At the annual ACM Computer-Human Interaction (CHI) conference last week, scholars presented three new methods for able-bodied people to take advantage of a user interface that has mostly stayed within the realm of assistive technology. The experiments show how using your eyes as a tool to control a computer could make everyone more productive, not just people who are disabled. It’s an example of the power of inclusive design: When technologies are built to accommodate users who have disabilities, everyone else benefits, too.
Proofreading emails–or any other chunk of text–with just your eyes
One of the most annoying things about writing is typos: They’re inevitable, but they’re a pain to go back and fix. Academics at the University of Auckland and the University of Bath presented a research paper at CHI that proposes using your gaze to fix those pesky little mistakes and navigate a chunk of text. First, you look at the typo you want to fix (something you’re probably doing anyway). Then, you start typing. The program, called ReType, identifies the word you’re trying to change based on your gaze, and replaces it with whatever you type. Then, you just have to press enter to continue, enabling you to keep your hands on the keyboard as you continue to edit your mistakes. Your cursor then stays in the location you just edited, enabling you to insert or delete text there. It turns your eyeballs into a mouse.
The study included a variety of keyboard users, some of whom had used gaze-tracking technology before, and the researchers showed that the method was able to match and sometimes beat the speed of using a mouse. Plus, users liked it: “We were very pleased to hear from a number of users that they expect ReType to be helpful in addressing and preventing repetitive strain injury,” Gerald Weber, a computer science lecturer at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, tells Fast Company via email, referring to the musculoskeletal damage that’s caused by small repetitive tasks like clicking, typing, and using a mouse. Currently, Retype is just a prototype, but the research team has patented it and wants to turn it into a product.
Navigating through code without ever using a mouse
Studies have found that developers spend about 35% of their time navigating through their code while they’re working. When they’re debugging, they spend about 50% of their time looking for information–something that slows them down considerably.
To solve this problem, Weber and his colleagues at Media Design School in New Zealand and the University of Bath used already-established eye-gaze technology to investigate whether using their eyes as a navigation tool would save developers time while they’re working. In a study presented at CHI, the researchers found that relying on gaze was similar in speed to using a keyboard, though it was slower than using a mouse. However, they also found that when given the choice, most developers chose to use the gaze as a means of navigation: 21 out of 28 participants used the gaze more than 80% of the time over a mouse.
The study used a technology called Actigaze, which Weber developed in coordination with accessibility organizations; it has a rough beta browser available right now. The Actigaze system could be used to help disabled coders with their work as well as give all coders another option for navigating code.
Using eye tracking to communicate with colleagues
As more people work remotely, collaboration across distance can be difficult. But a study from researchers at Pomona College that was presented at CHI shows how eye tracking could act as a collaborative tool. The researchers focused on the challenges of collaborating on a piece of writing while working in different places, something that has become common with the popularity of tools like Google Docs. They conducted a study with 20 pairs of academics, each of whom had an eye-tracking device at the bottom of their screen that showed their collaborator where they were looking within a digital text editor. After completing writing tasks where they did and did not have access to the location of the other person’s gaze, the study participants reported more mutual understanding, higher joint attention, greater flow of communication, and increased awareness of what their co-author was doing when they could see where their partner was looking. (The eye-tracking technology only shows up within the text editor, so collaborators wouldn’t be able to spy on each other’s eye movements outside of that context.)
All three studies propose ways that eye tracking could be used to increase productivity. Whether you’re editing text alone, writing with someone else, or navigating computer code, the gaze could become a complement to the mouse–or even replace it altogether.