June 12th, 2007
Eye-Tracking Device Lets Billboards Know When You Look at Them
By Dan Skeen
Billboards that know when you’re looking at them will soon be a reality, if new eye-tracking gear from a Canadian startup makes good on its maker’s claims.
The eyebox2 from xuuk is a palm-size video camera surrounded by infrared light-emitting diodes. It can record eye contact with 15-degree accuracy at a distance of up to 33 feet. A simple glance from a passerby scores an impression, providing a tally that enables new Google-like measurement metrics that real-world advertisers could only dream about until recently.
“It will revolutionize the digital-signage industry because it solves the half-missing part of the business model,” explains xuuk CEO Roel Vertegaal, who spent several years developing the gear in the Human Media Lab of Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. “Right now they’re pushing ads to clients, and they don’t even know if those clients are seeing those ads.”
Vertegaal’s team has overcome some traditional barriers to eye-tracking gear by leveraging the red-eye effect that frustrates many photographers, in which light is reflected back to the camera from the subject’s retina. The eyebox2 registers a view by deliberately inducing an instance of infrared-eye. When your eyeballs are aimed in its direction, they reflect light back to the camera, which detects the reflection and registers the fact that someone is looking at it.
This removes several limitations imposed by common eye-tracking gear, which requires careful calibration for each viewer, is often limited to very short distances and typically costs about $25,000. The eyebox2 sells for $1,000.
The digital-signage industry is low-hanging fruit for a product that offers tangible viewer metrics. Until now, methods of measuring the traffic and reach of billboards and plasma displays have been limited to human-conducted site surveys using notepads and tally-counters.
Eye-tracking gear has been used in retail settings to learn more about shoppers’ viewing habits, but those studies were limited to small sample groups of headgear-wearing volunteers in laboratories. The eyebox2 offers an automated method to find hot spots of eye activity in the real world, and also to assess the effectiveness of specific ads.
“This type of technology will have a big influence on how digital-signage media is bought and sold,” says Mike Foster, vice president of marketing for MediaTile, a Scotts Valley, California-based provider of digital-signage networks. “Itís extremely important for the industry to know who’s seeing the content.”
But while Vertegaal suggests that the “first” use for xuuk’s technology is ambient advertising, he has his sights set on other areas. His grand vision is to use eye activity to create “a mouse for the real world.” One potential outcome is more polite devices: Cell phones that won’t ring when you’re in a conversation, hearing aids that amplify the person you are looking at and TV sets that turn off when you’re not watching them.
Vertegaal compares it to the office colleague who might wait in your doorway to establish eye contact before interrupting. “Eye contact is used to negotiate attention, and itís fascinating how it works in humans,” Vertegaal says. “We can have technology do the same thing.”