Are we already entering the post-touch era? That question is prompted by Tobii Technology's announcement on Wednesday that next week it will sell to developers a device enabling Windows 8 users to control their computers with their eyes.
The USB peripheral device, called REX and described by the Swedish company as a "gaze interaction peripheral," is a strip that attaches to a computer screen, utilizes the company's Tobii Gaze software , and enables a user to control such functions as selecting, scrolling, zooming, and navigating through eye movements alone.
The company, founded in 2001, said the device is first being offered to developers in order to create a supply of applications that take advantage of eye-tracking, and a consumer version is planned for release in the second half of 2013. The Developer Edition goes for $995, including a software development kit and other support. The consumer price has not been announced.
When the consumer version is released, the company said only an initial run of 5,000 REX units will be offered, in order to prove the viability of the technology and the market. The product is targeted for Windows 8 devices, and Tobii has indicated it expects the technology to be integrated into laptops, tablets and screens within the next few years.
At the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show, Tobii showed an interface called Gaze UI that was integrated into a pre-release Windows 8 laptop, utilizing a touchpad in conjunction with eye tracking. The company has said it sees this technology being used in conjunction with mice and keyboards, rather than completely replacing them. REX is scheduled to be demonstrated at this year's CES, which starts next week in Las Vegas.
The company's technology, which was initially developed in a research project at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, incorporates near-infrared micro-projectors, optical sensors and image processing. The micro-projectors generate reflection patterns on a user's eyes, and image sensors register the user's eyes and the projection patterns in real time. Image processing and mathematical models calculate the eyes' position and the point at which they are gazing.
Beyond Keyboard, Mouse
Ross Rubin, principal analyst for Reticle Research, noted that touch computing has opened the door "to the potential of interaction beyond a keyboard and mouse," as has mobile interaction based on accelerators and gyroscopes.
But, he said, the viability of eye gazing and other new technologies can be limited if they are not supported at the operating system level, because they "can only emulate some action that is already supported," such as pinch-to-zoom or hover. Even though there are an increasing number of companies offering new forms of interaction, Rubin told us, their technologies are built around APIs and their specific applications -- a situation that he does not see changing "in the near future."
Tobii's REX joins a continuing stream of releases and announcements that could point, someday, to the post-touch future. In addition to the growing cottage industry creating new uses for Microsoft's gestural controller Kinect, for instance, a company named Leap Motion has seeded its upcoming $70 controller and software for precise, 3D in-the-air gestural control to 50,000 developers. Its product, which Leap Motion said is "200 times more sensitive than existing motion-control technology," is also expected to be released this year.