Disabled people may soon join their friends on the couch to play videogames after a team of engineers revealed that they have managed to develop a cheap, mass-produced videogaming equipment which allows the user to control a computer by tracking their eye movements.
The gadget comprises two video game console cameras, costing less than $10 apiece, attached outside the line of vision to a pair of ordinary glasses, reported the team from Imperial College London.
The cameras relay the eye's movements to an ordinary computer, wirelessly over Wi-Fi or via USB, and used one watt of power, they wrote in the Journal of Neural Engineering.
In this way, test subjects could control a cursor on a screen just like a computer mouse.
"We have achieved two things: we have built a 3D eye tracking system hundreds of times cheaper than commercial systems and used it to build a real-time brain machine interface," said co-author Aldo Faisal.
"This is frugal innovation; developing smarter software and piggy-backing existing hardware to create devices that can help people worldwide..."
It also allowed patients to interact more smoothly and more quickly than technologies that require electrode implants in the brain, and are even more expensive.
"We demonstrate here that by using mass-produced video game hardware, it is possible to produce an ultra-low cost binocular eye-tracker with comparable performance to commercial systems, yet 800 times cheaper," the researchers wrote.
The technology offers hope for restoring some level of independence to people suffering from multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, muscular dystrophy and spinal cord injuries or amputees.
In the EU alone, there were more than 16 million people with disabilities who would benefit from such a system, said the scientists.
Other low-cost eye-tracking systems developed in the past had much lower performance, they added, while commercial-grade systems mainly used in research cost more than $20,000.
To demonstrate their gadget's functionality, the team got subjects to play the video game Pong -- using their eyes to bat a ball bouncing around on a computer screen.
Six of the subjects who had never done this before, achieved a "respectable score", said Faisal.
A video of someone playing Pong using device can be watched here:
The researchers said they solved the problem of involuntary blinking in controlling the computer.
Many systems use a blink to represent a mouse click, but the team calibrated their system to work on a single-eyed wink instead.
They were also able to calibrate how far into the distance their subjects were looking, holding promise for future applications that may allow people to control an electronic wheelchair simply by looking at where they want to go.
Faisal said the team was looking for a funding partner "that embraces our low-cost approach" to make the device commercially available, and had filed for a patent.