What can eye-tracking technologies tell us about technology potential?
Designers can be mediators who can provide users ways to “domesticate” emerging technologies. To make their use as familiar as possible for users is a conventional way to tackle emerging technology adoption. However, this convergent approach also limits the full exploitation of a technology’s potential. A research project I worked on offers a striking example of how a divergent role for design can explore the untapped potential of a technology: the eye-trackers.
In our world run by information, data and screens, eyes have become highly active organs because of their sensory function in human-machine interactions. This trend has driven later on the development of eye-tracking technologies to obtain more clues about human behaviors and it established the status quo for eye-trackers as measuring tools.
While the initial purpose of eye-trackers had been to assess gestures, some researcher like Jean Lorenceau from the National Centre for Scientific Research in Paris (CNRS), have asked what else could this technology achieve? Lorenceau repurposed eye-trackers as a writing tools which enabled users to draw handwritten letters on a screen. The singularity of his system emulated the tracing of pen on a sheet of paper by using eye-pursuit movements.
Exploring a tech potential
In 2016, I established a partnership with Lorenceau as part of my master thesis project, and I started a design research called Oculoscription (or eye-writing in French). I sought out eye-tracking’s potential as an emerging interactive means with a radical speculative approach:
In a future where eye-trackers would enable us to write with our eyes, what would be the evolution of handwritten letters? What interface would we use to trace eye-written letters? The goal of this exploration was to prototype innovative and practical alternatives, which were a new alphabet model and a screen interface.
To start the process, I grounded the research with a meticulous analysis of eyes’ anatomy and their human factors because they made eye-writing so different from handwriting. For instance, the first factor was that users had to write ‘blindly’ because their eyes couldn’t be tracing and they couldn’t be looking at what they were doing in the same time. These were paradoxical actions.
These preliminary considerations ensured that the design of the speculative outcomes would be ergonomic and “down-to-earth.” Also I chose the Latin alphabet as the basis for this exploratory process because I knew its tracing methods and its history. Moreover, the research involved a user-tester who was responsible for experimenting and tracing the new exploratory alphabet model.
The process was divided into 3 steps:
My initial assumption was that ocular human factors made handwritten letters inappropriate for eye-writing. Then, the new alphabet model should be based on eye-pursuit movements which were effortless to perform. I used a tool I called the “familiarity spectrum” to provoke an incremental innovation in the Latin alphabet. This purposely set a subversive goal for research: create ergonomic tracings for eye-writing and design letter shapes unfamiliar to our reading habits. The user-tester drew freely on the screen and we identified several traces we judged appropriate. Then, we used a selection of them to design new letter shapes.
A hands-on process of trials and error was favored to verify if the new letter shapes were appropriate for eye-writing.
Discussions with the user-tester help refining letters to make them more convenient for tracing. The writing interface was also developed to increase the eyes spatial awareness of the screen by guiding them while when they were drawing “blindly”.
Inventing and investing in forward-thinking solutions
The final phase of this design research produced three “future artifacts” which worked as a system: a prototype for newly evolved Latin alphabet, another one for the drawing interface and finally, an ocular kinaesthetic training.
Oculoscription research revealed the potential of eye-trackers to spark advancements in human computer interaction. Indeed, eyes could have more emphasis than hands when it comes to interact with machines. Also, the ocular organs could foster new kind of developments for users by expanding the kinaesthetic control of their gaze.
Moreover, the research process raised some questions. How would today’s devices adapt to eye-gesture interfaces? What does it mean for electronic device manufacturers or consumer electronic companies? What interactive means could eye-tracking generate for VR headsets, head-mounted displays or screen devices? Is eye-writing tiring? What practical changes could a new alphabet drive in society?
The value of this creative experimentation isn’t to predict what technology solutions there will be in the future. On the contrary, I believe that it is about discovering future inventions to create new business opportunities.
History shows that a divergent mindset can expand the potential of a technology. For example, mathematician Ada Lovelace imagined new capabilities for the analytical engine, which was a theoretical calculator. Her forward-thinking ideas about the machine opened the way to computing technology and algorithms. If past technologies could achieve long-term developments, how can present technologies drive tomorrow’s developments? Here are opportunities that are yet to be imagined!
Designer can help engineers, technologists and entrepreneurs research and find unique functions for technologies that can help shape our futures. If you are thrilled to explore their potential and tap into unexpected opportunities, I will be pleased to help you. Contact me at email@example.com.
Transition Design as Postindustrial Interaction Design?, Cameron Tonkinwise, 2014, Medium.
Eye Tracking Through History, EyeSee, 2014, Medium.
The Laws of Simplicity: Design, Technology, Business, Life, John Maeda, 2006, The MIT Press.