Eye-controlled computer games for disabled children

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education correspondent

image captionChildren who cannot use a mouse or keyboard can play computer games using their eyes

Computer games which can be controlled by eye movements are being developed by researchers at a UK university.

The project at De Montfort University aims to allow severely-disabled youngsters to play computer games.

Learning to control games by eye tracking is also intended to help disabled children navigate real-world environments.

Eye control "adds a whole new level of intelligence to games", says research leader Stephen Vickers.

The use of eye tracking as a way of interacting with devices has been explored for a number of years, says Dr Vickers.

But his project is developing a more accessible, low-cost system, which will bring games into the reach of disabled children who cannot operate a mouse or keyboard.

They will be able to "push" buttons and direct a character by looking at different points on the screen. In a spaceship game, he says players can fire a gun by staring at a button.

Here's looking at you

Eye tracking uses an infrared light to identify where the eyes are looking - and can measure the movements as the person looks around a computer screen.

If the eyes focus on an on-screen button, this can be like using a mouse and cursor to "click" on a button.

Researchers at the project at the Leicester-based university have worked with a local special school.

As well as letting children play games, it is also a way of helping children with very limited mobility to learn how to move around virtual environments, including those showing the layout of real buildings.

image captionResearchers at De Montfort want to develop a more affordable eye-tracking system

Dr Vickers says the growing popularity of touchscreen tablet computers and the use of gesture and swiping motions on computers is part of a wider change in how people interact with computers.

If eye-tracking technology is going to become more affordable and mainstream, he says it is likely to be through the games industry.

"The characters will walk where you are looking. It's much more natural to use and enjoy. It adds a whole new level of intelligence for games," he says.

The use of eye tracking is also being developed for other types of special needs.

Researchers in the United States are using eye tracking to study different forms of autism among children.

It showed that children on the autistic spectrum are less likely to look into people's eyes and are more likely to look fixedly at inanimate objects or at bodies.

The eye-tracking study from the Marcus Autism Center, Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, and Emory University School of Medicine also found that "highly verbal children" on the autistic spectrum were more likely to look at mouths.

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