The history of eye-tracking technology

Eye tracking as a methodology to study eye movements has been used for centuries, and recent advances have enabled computer interaction. This is a quick introduction to the history of eye tracking, from early research to gaze interaction in mainstream computers.

Eye tracking in research

As far back as the 1800s, studies of eye movement were made using direct observation. This technique was used to understand reading patterns as a series of short stops (fixations) and quick saccades and not, as previously assumed, as a smooth sweeping of the eyes.

In the early 1900s, an eye tracker was built using something like a contact lens with a hole for the pupil. The lens was connected to an aluminum pointer that moved in response to the movement of the eye.

The first non-intrusive eye trackers arrived in the mid-1900s. They reflected beams of light onto the eye and then recorded them on film. Another method was to use simple 8-mm film to track eye movement by filming the subject through a glass plate on which the visual problem was displayed.

In the 1970s and 1980s, eye-tracking research developed rapidly. Established hypotheses were challenged – for instance, the idea that what has been looked at has also been processed cognitively. Researchers realized that attention can also be directed at something you are not looking at, and that there was a need to differentiate between what is fixated and what is processed.

In resent research, eye tracking has often been combined with EEG recordings to bridge the gap between a test subject’s attention and response.

Eye tracking in human-computer interaction

In the 1980s, eye tracking became a tool for investigating human-computer interaction. Eye tracking is widely used to study how users interact with different computer interfaces, the user-friendliness of web pages and software interfaces, etc.

In the early 2000s, eye-controlled computer interfaces started to emerge. These were primarily used by people with disabilities to generate speech and to access computers. Tobii started its business in 2001 and quickly addressed both research and interaction with eye-tracking solutions.

Over the last decade, the process of collecting and analyzing data with the use of eye tracking has become much more automatic, precise and objective. Moreover, emerging gaze interfaces are expected to revolutionize the way we use computers and other computerized interfaces.

The future of eye tracking

The appeal of adding eye tracking and gaze interaction features to applications has skyrocketed over the last few years. Tobii is seeing huge interest in implementing its eye-tracking technology in computers, games, cars, operator controls, medical diagnostics equipment, and much more. In 2011, Tobii and Lenovo showcased the world’s first laptop with integrated eye tracking, and Tobii has since accelerated development of eye tracking for consumer devices. In 2013, Tobii received an award for innovation and evolution of technology that is changing the automotive industry.