Eye-tracking system allows for data collection, computer control for users with limited or no hand functionality, and could even help diagnose concussions in athletes.
It's not uncommon for universities to create new technologies, but it's generally not a ground-breaking piece of equipment from a faculty member in the English department.
Brian Still, an associate professor of technical communication in the Texas Tech University Department of English and director of the Texas Tech Usability Research Lab, recently received the 2015 President's Excellence in Commercialization Award for developing and bringing to market a mobile eye-tracking technology.
“Brian Still's work on this exciting new technology will bring more awareness to the high quality of faculty and research going on at Texas Tech,” said Texas Tech President M. Duane Nellis. “I supported him receiving this award because of the outstanding work he's done and continues to do, and the positive light he's shining on our university.”
The Usability Research Lab teaches graduate and undergraduate students to provide evaluation services to clients and carry out user-experience research. In late 2009 and early 2010, multiple clients requested eye-tracking data in the lab's analytics package.
“Eye tracking, moreso than what users say about the product, is quantifiable and generally accurate,” Still said. “‘The eyes don't lie,' we say, and often where a user first looks, what things most attract the user's attention, as well as what visual pathway the user takes when looking at a web site, for example, tells us a lot about their cognitive expectations and the success or failure of a product to meet them.”
The problem with eye tracking, however, is the cost of implementing the technology. Systems can cost $40,000 or more, which the lab could not afford. So Still and his team attempted to make their own. After months of experimentation, the team constructed a prototype eye tracker relatively inexpensively.
“Because it was cheap to make we believed it could be cheap to make for everyone, and that would open up the possibility of producing and selling an alternative, affordable eye-tracking system on the market,” Still said.
He disclosed the EyeGaze invention to Texas Tech's Office of Research Commercialization in 2010. A few months later came the EyeAssist, which allowed for the eye to control objects on the screen, including the mouse.
After founding the company Grinbath in 2011 with Usability Research Lab assistant Nathan Jahnke, Still licensed the two inventions from Texas Tech. Grinbath began selling the EyeGuide Tracker, a low cost eye-tracking system, and EyeGuide Assist, a low cost assistive product to allow users with limited or no hand functionality to control a computer mouse with their eyes.
The pair eventually developed 3-D drawings, printed circuit boards and designed hardware for the products and then created the following software to help them function:
- EyeGuide Capture: For calibrating the eye in all lighting conditions
- EyeGuide Analyze: For analyzing eye-tracking data, generating heat maps, gaze plots and live data at 60 frames per second, such as pupil diameter and user fixations
- EyeGuide Assist: For enabling users' eyes to control the mouse and to use their voices, blinking or staring to click on objects or type
Grinbath sold the Tracker and Assist systems in 2011 and 2012. Clients included Oxford University, Clemson, USC, Google and PayPal. An Assist system was even sold to Steve Gleason, a former NFL player diagnosed with ALS. Such sales allowed Still and Jahnke to create a successor to the EyeGuide Tracker technologies. The EG platform, now called the EyeGuide Mobile Platform, debuted in 2012. It is the world's only mobile eye tracking and control system.
“It not only allows researchers to see what users see wherever they are, whatever they are doing, but it also allows users to control objects with their eyes, including smart systems like drones or robotics, even vehicles,” Still said. “A 90-degree HD scene camera, six hours of battery life, live viewing and playback on iPads, iPhones and head movement compensation with a built in Gyro, the EyeGuide platform is the best system out there for mobile eye tracking and control, even though it remains affordable compared to competitor products.”
Now with analytics and visualize software, sales of complete systems began in late 2014. They have been purchased by Columbia University, the University of North Texas and Stanford, to name a few.
But even with everything the systems offer, Still and Jahnke aren't finished.
“We are set to begin pilot testing of a new software application, EyeGuide Focus, which allows trainers and other healthcare practitioners to detect the signs of concussion in athletes,” Still said. “Most current concussion testing is neuropsychological, but EyeGuide Focus is neurocognitive, making it potentially more reliable. And because it can be executed in less than a minute, on the sidelines, it is also more flexible and affordable than other alternatives such as neuroimaging.”
They have already tested more than 2,000 high school athletes in 2015 as part of their study, and now they are working with other Texas Tech researchers from electrical engineering, psychology, health and exercise sciences and agriculture to apply for grants to study the potential effectiveness of Focus in athlete populations.
“If Focus is successful, it will make Grinbath and Texas Tech leaders in providing inexpensive but effective healthcare for sports, especially in rural areas where there are so few resources,” Still said.