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Comcast unveils a remote for changing channels with your eyes

For the millions of people with disabilities like ALS and muscular dystrophy, Comcast’s new eye-tracking remote control could help them channel surf on their own.

Comcast unveils a remote for changing channels with your eyes
[Photo: Comcast]

I’m sitting on a couch in front of a giant flat-screen television, and after staring intently at the tablet in front of me, I manage to put on a daytime rerun of NCIS without lifting a finger.

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Today, the telecommunications corporation Comcast is launching a new interface that enables anyone to use just their eyeballs to channel surf. It doesn’t require fancy hardware or expensive equipment: All it takes is an off-the-shelf eye tracker, a tablet or computer, and the company’s internet-connected Xfinity X1 Cloud DVR.

[Photo: Comcast]

The digital eye-enabled remote was designed primarily for people with disabilities, like ALS or muscular dystrophy, who have difficulty using physical remote controls (though anyone who’s interested can use it). Jimmy Curran, a Philadelphia-based research analyst and author who has spinal muscular atrophy, was one of the product’s first customers. In a moving video that Comcast produced for the announcement, Curran describes how he has lived independently since college but that there are certain things he still needs help with. “When I have company, we’ll be watching something,” he says. “And then when they leave, I’m stuck watching whatever has been left on the TV.”

But with the new interface, which is set up on a tablet that’s anchored to his wheelchair, Curran can change the channel, surf Netflix, or turn off the TV on his own, just by focusing his gaze on icons on the screen.

Here’s how it works: The system is compatible with any eye tracker on the market today, Comcast says. The tracker has to be plugged into a tablet or computer using a USB port. Then, Xfinity customers log in via a web page, which pairs with any X1 device connected to their account and then launches the remote interface directly on their screen. This is possible because X1 runs in the cloud, unlike previous remotes, which used infrared light to communicate with a cable box (meaning they required a direct line of sight). When users click on a button using their eyes, the request goes through Comcast’s cloud network and is routed to their television.

[Photo: Comcast]

As for the interface: It’s located at a web URL and has all the buttons you’d have on any remote, like “guide,” up and down arrow keys, and numbers. The icons are so large that they take up most of the screen, so you can easily select them using your eyes.

When I tried it out, it took less than a minute to calibrate my eyes, then it was relatively easy to start navigating the television with my gaze. To click any button, I focused on a mouse click icon on the screen’s right side, which would indicate to the interface that I wanted to select whatever button I focused on next (this prevents you from accidentally clicking buttons when you don’t mean to). Then, when I focused for a few seconds on the guide button, a little magnifying glass would show me exactly where the computer was detecting my gaze so that I could adjust if it wasn’t picking up the right button. I’d hold my stare for a few moments, and that was all I needed to do before the change would be reflected on the screen in front of me.

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It did take some getting used to, but I’m also not accustomed to using eye trackers. People with disabilities, who already use them to navigate their computers, would likely be experts at using the interface immediately. The steps, like using the mouse click icon before selecting a button, are configurable in the remote’s settings and can be turned off if they don’t suit someone’s surfing style.

The eye-tracking remote is the latest in a sea of accessible devices, as companies from Microsoft to Ford begin to understand the business importance of serving customers who don’t fit the mold of the average user. Comcast has been part of this trend for a few years. Previously, the company launched a voice-enabled remote control in 2015, which allowed people to speak to their television and have the television talk back. When I was demoing the eye-tracking technology in Comcast’s office, Comcast’s vice president of accessibility Tom Wlodkowski, who is vision-impaired, turned on the talk-back feature. “You’re controlling the remote, but I’m hearing what’s on the screen,” he says. “Everybody else in the room can see what you’re doing. But now I can hear it. So it’s a totally inclusive experience right now.”

Comcast has 22 million Xfinity customers, two-thirds of whom have X1 devices in their houses. By making its tech available to more people, Comcast hopes it can convince non-Xfinity users who want to take advantage of the eye-tracking remote to switch to their service. Will people really move over to Comcast—which has a reputation for terrible customer service, leading some to crown it the most hated company in America—because of an eye-gaze keyboard? Maybe not. But it’s a small step toward making Xfinity more accessible and user-centric.

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Email her at kschwab@fastcompany.com and follow her on Twitter @kschwabable

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