Step aside, Iron Man. Eye control of PCs could soon be reality for the masses.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

August 3, 2011

5 Min Read

In the movie Iron Man, Tony Stark wears a powerful suit of armor he controls via a computer interface including eye tracking and voice recognition. Voice recognition left the realm of science fiction a long time ago. Now it's eye tracking's turn to leap into reality.

Tobii PCEye is one of the most advanced eye-tracking input systems available. Using my eyes to control a mouse took some getting used to, but with 15 minutes of practice I could use many programs on my computer with PCEye. Occasionally I'd forget it was tracking my eyes and do something that caused accidental clicking, but for the most part it was very easy.

The PCEye device must be mounted level with the bottom of your screen. If the included bracket doesn't fit your particular monitor, you can still use it with a little creativity. I had to place my monitor on a stack of books at the same angle as the bracket and it worked just fine.

After training PCEye to recognize my eye movements, I left my hands in my lap and for about an hour used my computer with only PCEye and a headset hooked up to a speech-recognition program. During that time, I was able to be productive without much trouble, including writing and editing several paragraphs of this review.

The included documentation is good for installation and setup. A helpful video shows how to mount and calibrate the device. Device calibration is quick, easy, and starts automatically after the driver is installed. You simply look at a dot on the screen until it flashes and moves to the next spot. Then look at the dot's new location, and so on. PCEye supports the calibrations and preferences of multiple users.

But the docs are sparse on how to actually use PCEye. Through trial and error I found two ways to click with my eyes. "Dwell" involves simply holding your gaze on something you want to select or click. I found this very difficult to do with any constancy and opted for a second method, "blink." Using blink you simply blink briefly to click. The blink speed is fully adjustable. The only trick to making blink work is holding your eyes very still while blinking.

A floating menu lets you change functions by looking at different icons.

PCEye isn't perfect. Selecting small objects in program toolbars took some effort. Every once in a while the cursor would be off to the left or right of the item I actually wanted to select. I had to look at the item next to the one I actually wanted in order to select it. It seemed easier to be precise with the mouse on the bottom of the screen, closer to the device.

same as caption A handy overlay appears if you move to a position that degrades PCEye's performance. Simply move until the onscreen "eyes" are in the green and the help screen will fade out.

Some actions, such as clicking and dragging a window, are very difficult. In order to make those things easier, I turned off many of Windows 7's autosnap features. I kept thinking that a tablet-style interface would be ideal for this type of device because something designed for fingers would more closely match the imprecision of eye movements.

While the device is on, a see-through menu hovers on your screen to help you select functions with your eyes. Switching from mouse clicks to panning the screen with your eyes is as easy as looking at the correct button on this menu and blinking once. To switch to the mouse I simply looked at the pause button and blinked before grabbing the mouse. I also found it very easy to switch between wearing contacts and glasses. Switching eyewear does not require any extra adjustments.

PCEye is targeted at assistive technology applications for people with limited motor skills, spinal cord injuries, and certain neurological disorders, but it might have mainstream uses. Any application that requires operating a computer while using your hands for something else is one for consideration. Astronauts, surgeons, and equipment operators can consider this type of device today. Unfortunately, it requires too much concentration to be useful in a vehicle right now--but it certainly feels like that might be possible in the future.

PCEye isn't something mainstream computer users will buy for their home offices today. The $6,900 price will keep it mostly in the realm of assistive technologies for now. It is, however, a capable input device we could only imagine a few years ago, and with more refinements PCEye could be the future of input.

Pros: Easy to install, accurate with or without glasses, and portable.
Cons: Fine-grained control is difficult, and the high price keeps it from widespread use.
Verdict: PCEye is easy to set up and use. It's expensive, but in the applications for which it is designed, it performs very well.
Price: $6,900
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