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Technology

Eye control focuses on touch 'n' swipe market

A Danish team is aiming for ubiquity with new software that lets users control mobile devices with their eyes. But medical specialists are viewing the software with caution.

Just imagine being able to unlock your smartphone by moving your eyes - instead of using your fingers to swipe.

It is a fascinating development that could revolutionize eBook readers and mobile phones - that is, if the makers can convince device manufacturers to add the hardware that is needed for the software to work.

"We project infrared light towards the eye and those reflections are picked up by an infrared camera," says Sune Alstrup Johansen, one of the developers at Danish company The Eye Tribe. "And then we have software that very accurately can calculate where you are looking on the screen. And this is what enables eye control."

Johansen is one of four Copenhagen University PhD graduates behind the new software.

They raised 615,000 euros from private European investors in August to develop a prototype.

Johansen and his team predict eye and gesture control will be the next big thing after touch control, which is long considered a standard in the mobile device industry.

"Imagine an eBook that automatically turns to the next page because it knows exactly when you've finished reading a page, or a phone that knows it's you when you're looking at it, and when you look away, it can power down again," says Johansen.

Eye strain

He describes his eye software as a "natural" means of control and another step towards making devices more "intelligent."

It could have benefits for interactive games, entertainment and even mobile learning.

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But there are concerns about potential adverse effects, such as eye strain.

Dr Thomas Lischka, an eye doctor at Hamburg's University Clinic, raises the possibility that exposing the eyes to a constant beam of infrared light could lead to complications.

"It's known that infrared rays can damage the lenses of the eyes," says Lischka. "And since we're spending more and more time in front of mobile devices, exposure time is critical. Experiments would have to prove that long exposure - using current devices - doesn't have any negative consequences."

The Central Association of Opticians in Germany says that because the technology is new and untested, there is no way of knowing what impacts it could have.

Johansen is keen to play down any fears, but can't rule out everything.

"You're not really stressing the eyes if what you're doing is just looking in a natural way at the device," says Johansen. "But if you want to have more direct control, for instance, if you want to play a game in which you have to aim, that of course is something we're not used to. In some cases there would be ways in which you would want to train yourself to use it, [cases] that are not natural."

Hardware modifications

The Copenhagen-based company sees eye control as a supplement to other forms of device control, such as voice control, which is already on the market, with varying degrees of success.

It is releasing a free development kit (SDK) to incite software developers to produce apps using the technology. And it aim to make money from licensing the technology to device manufacturers.

But it could be difficult to persuade the big hardware firms, like Apple and Samsung, to include the components that are necessary for eye control in their next generation of devices.

"It's not an easy fix," admits Johansen, "because we need to convince them. They will need to make some minor modifications to their devices. But we see there's a lot of interest in the market for natural control, so we think it's definitely possible."

The Eye Tribe wouldn't disclose its secret strategy for achieving its goal. But if eye control does become the next big thing on mobile devices, it'll give the name "iPhone" a whole new meaning.

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