A Queen’s University Computing professor’s invention – recently unveiled at Google’s corporate headquarters in California – provides a unique, affordable way for advertisers to track the effectiveness of their messages by measuring how many people are looking at their billboards and screens.
Called eyebox2™, the portable device uses a camera that monitors eye movements in real time and automatically detects when you are looking at it from up to 10 meters away, without calibration. Until now, such eye-trackers have been ineffective beyond 60 centimeters, required people to remain stationary, needed personalized calibration to function, and cost more than $25,000 US. By contrast, the new walk-up-and-use eye is offered at a fraction of that cost.
“This camera mimics eye contact perception in humans, allowing us to pinpoint quite accurately what plasma screen or product shelf people are looking at,” says Dr. Roel Vertegaal, director of the Human Media Laboratory at Queen’s and inventor of the technology. He is also CEO of Xuuk, Inc. a startup company that he formed with PARTEQ Innovations, the technology transfer office of Queen’s, to commercialize the technology.
The debut of eyebox2™ coincides with a new trend in North America and Europe of “ambient” advertising, using plasma display panels. While the impact of Internet ads can be measured by the number of hits on a web site, it is much harder to assess the effectiveness of plasma screens that target people in shopping malls, restaurants and other public places. The Queen’s invention gives advertisers a tool to accurately measure how much attention something receives, whether on a plasma panel, a billboard, or as the result of its placement on a supermarket shelf.
“Our technology allows interactive real-time “Flow of Attention” measures of customers in the real world. This allows ambient ads run in malls literally to be sold ‘by the eyeball,” says Dr. Vertegaal. “It enables brick-and-mortar stores such as Wal-mart and Sears to use a revenue model similar to Google’s online PageRank and web analytics technologies.”
Dr. Vertegaal stresses that this technology is not an additional form of surveillance, like closed-circuit TV, but compares it instead to a simple door sensor that detects whether people want to pass through. “The door sensor doesn’t know who you are, and neither does the eyebox2™ sensor,” he says. “It is a passive technology that simply counts how many people have been looking at a particular ad and for how long, just like a door sensor observes whether people might be interested in going through the doorway.”
As competition for a consumer’s attention intensifies, this technology enables advertisers to assess interest in their products in a complete transparent fashion, and for considerably less cost than existing products, says Dr. Vertegaal.
“We’ve been striving for the last 15 years to make eye tracking a mass input device – as useful and convenient as a mouse,” he adds. “Now we have a growth market in advertising, and a product that’s small enough, cheap enough, and able to work at a much longer distance, and in walk-up-and-use scenarios. I think it represents a real breakthrough that will later on help people work better with computers in ways currently that are unthinkable.”
Developed from their research into Attentive User Interfaces, the technologies reflect a novel approach to human-computer interactions. The focus of the research is on making everyday devices more attentive to their users by “sensing” when it is appropriate to interact with them. Today’s presentation focuses on advertising applications, but future potential uses include attentive computers, cellphones and household appliances.
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