Press release | 21.4.2015
Munich/Stockholm, 21 April 2015 - At the age of 24, John Elvesjö accidentally made a crucial discovery: While in a lab experiment that involved optical sensors designed to track the movements of pulp particles, he noticed that one of the sensors followed the movements of his eyes. The idea to develop an eye-tracking sensor was born. Together with his team at Swedish company Tobii, Elvesjö turned this vision of eye-tracking technology into a trail-blazing product. For this achievement, the European Patent Office (EPO) has named the Swedish team one of three finalists for the European Inventor Award 2015 in the category "Small and medium-sized enterprises". The winners of the 10th edition of the annual innovation prize will be announced at a ceremony in Paris on 11 June.
"With their invention, John Elvesjö and his team prove that developing an innovative technology can have a major impact on large parts of society," said EPO President Benoît Battistelli, announcing the finalists of this year's award. "Eye tracking opens up new and ground-breaking possibilities for the interaction between humans and machines. One small eye movement is enough to trigger computer-operated actions and to facilitate communication, creating completely new perspectives in professional and recreational life."
A good 14 years after Elvesjö's discovery Tobii is the global market leader in eye tracking. The technology is being used in numerous areas of public and private life. It has revolutionised market research, touched the lives of people with a variety of conditions, and helped bring eye tracking to everyday experiences such as driving, computing and game play. The Swedish team's invention incorporates near-infrared microprojectors, optical sensors and image processing. The microprojectors create reflection patterns on the eyes. Sensors register the image of the user, the user's eyes, and the projection patterns - in real time. Image processing is used to find features of the user, the eyes and projection patterns. Mathematical models are used to exactly calculate the eyes' position and the gaze point. As a result, computers can be controlled solely by eye movements. The algorithms in particular posed an enormous challenge. However, Elvesjö was able to overcome it together with his friend and colleague Mårten Skogö and a team of scientific experts.
The eye-tracking technology is ground-breaking in a number of ways: It can return the power of communication to people whose communication abilities are severely restricted because of physical and mental disabilities. They interact with speech-generating systems by eye movement and thus, can communicate with their environment. "We realised early on that there were a huge number of different applications where eye tracking could be used and already in the beginning we decided that communication devices for individuals with disabilities was an area where we really wanted to make a difference," says Mårten Skogö. For instance, eye tracking is ideal for patients with Rett syndrome, a movement disorder that affects patients' ability to speak, walk and use their hands. Eye tracking can be deployed to analyse how they look at the world. Patients with the degenerative disease of the motor system Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), such as physicist Stephen Hawking, can use new and sophisticated ways of communication.
A completely different application of eye tracking can be found in market research: Wearable retina-tracking eyeglasses allow for real-time analysis while a person is shopping online or in a store. This helps companies better understand how a consumer's eyes move from one product display to another and allows researchers to identify a display's ideal characteristics for capturing the attention of shoppers in different demographic target groups.
The technology can be deployed in numerous other areas: Eye tracking can potentially be used in any interaction involving a computer. This could be related to vehicles, mobile phones and tablets or TVs and similar devices. The technology is also used in computing and game play, creating whole new experiences for gamers. Many activities, such as scrolling down the screen or zooming, could be eye-controlled. Eye tracking also finds its use in medicine: Surgeons in operating theatres can access information on a computer without compromising their hands' sterility. "I'm sure that within ten years we'll see eye tracking as a natural part of every cellphone, every car, computer and television," says John Elvesjö.
The discovery with the sensor experiment in 2000 made Elvesjö realise the immense potential of this technology. Supported by his colleague Mårten Skogö, he immediately set about his research in order to explore opportunities. Henrik Eskilsson took over marketing the new eye-tracking system. Together they founded Tobii in 2001, which has now become world market leader in this field. All three founders remain with the company as Chief Technical Officer, Chief Science Officer and Chief Executive Officer.
Based in Stockholm, the company
now has 570 employees and a global presence, with offices in Germany, Norway, China, Japan and the United States. Its
estimated IPO valuation is EUR 248 million. The
market for eye-tracking applications is estimated to reach EUR 34 billion by 2020, more than tripling its current value. Elvesjö, who dropped out of an engineering physics
programme at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm to pursue the
eye-tracking system, now holds 15 patents.
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