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Is Apple about to open a can of eye-tracking?

Imagine if you could control an iPhone or tablet using your eyes. Information dug up from a patent application filed in December 2007, shows that Apple is developing what it calls “gaze vectors” — more simply: information on where your eyes are looking — to let users navigate using eye movements. This patent application hints at one possible shape of the “sexy” new interface rumoured in the forthcoming Apple tablet. Apple has shown historical interest in eye-tracking technology, most recently evidenced by the purchase of units from Tobii, a Swedish company specialising in eye-tracking tech.

Although it’s a hobbyist niche at the moment, eye-tracking tech allows users to accurately browse and navigate websites and user interfaces without physically touching the screen, and no goggles required. Take a look at the video below. It demonstrates how far eye-tracking tech has come in the last few years. Its maturation, together with Apple’s interest in companies like Tobii, plus the claims that Apple’s tablet will include a big chunk of “sexy”, all adds up to the serious possibility that Apple may be thinking way beyond our expectations.

But why would Apple take such a gamble on an unproven eye-tracking control system? Well, because it’s what it does.

Apple has historically adapted niche input methods and popularised them for a mainstream audience. It did it with the computer mouse in 1984, and then again with the touchscreen in 2007. Both technologies had languished in esoteric devices, or in the case of the mouse, in the labs of Xerox Parc. To imagine today’s PC without a mouse is unthinkable. The inclusion of eye-tracking tech in the company’s forthcoming tablet would be Job’s magnum opus. What better flourish to a career that began with the popularisation of windows, icons, mouse and pointer than to usurp them all?