NASA Tech Tuesday: Seeing Is Communicating

Communicating when a traumatic brain injury, stroke, or disease has made speech impossible can be intimidating. Specialized eye-tracking technology uses eye movement to enable people living with disabilities to connect one-on-one over the phone or via the internet.

Eye-tracking systems for computers pinpoint a person’s gaze – where the eye is looking at a screen – by reflecting infrared light off the cornea and capturing it with a camera, using image-processing software to determine the eye’s orientation. The technology isn’t new, but it has become much more widely accessible, thanks in part to a collaboration between NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California and a Fairfax, Virginia-based company called Eyegaze Inc.

When the company built the first model in 1988, its computers were bulky, requiring three shipping boxes for equipment and a company staff member to set up the system. That cost limited access, and the learning process could be intimidating.

In 1998, NASA and Eyegaze entered a public-private partnership via Congressional funding to make the hardware smaller, more portable, and affordable without compromising efficiency. It also reduced the weight of the original system by six times and its volume by almost the same factor. Other advancements served as a springboard for two more decades of development. By collaborating with JPL, the two entities were able to miniaturize and improve the company’s Eyegaze Edge system and lower costs, eliminating barriers to ownership of this communications technology.

“Working with NASA, we were able to make the device less bulky,” said Preethi Vaidyanathan, an engineer with Eyegaze. “Since then, we integrated the external components into a small camera.” It mounts above or below a standard computer screen and requires less than 15 seconds to calibrate to an individual’s gaze.

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