Reynold Bailey, a computer science professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, uses eye-tracking technology to teach doctors to read mammograms better. The idea is to subtly highlight areas that the student should look at next, teaching them the scan patterns followed by experienced radiologists.
"If this works with mammograms, there are also other applications," he says. The same technology can be used to train pilots in how to check instruments, for example.
But he says he doesn't expect eye tracking to be used as an input device, to, say, replace a mouse for general-purpose use.
"The eye is not an input device," he says. "With the mouse, you can hover over a link and decide whether to click or not. With the eye, you might just be reading it, so you don't want to activate everything you look at. So you can do blink to click, but your eyes get tired from that. And we move our eyes around and blink involuntarily."
Limits of mind control
It may sound like science fiction, but mind reading devices are already out in the market -- and they don't require sensors or plugs to be implanted into your skull. Some work by sensing nerve signals sent to arms and legs, and are useful for helping restore mobility to the handicapped. Others read brain waves, such as the Intific, Emotiv and NeuroSky headsets.
The Intific and Emotiv headsets can be used to play video games with your mind. But these mind reading devices can do more than just connect with computers. NeuroSky, for example, is the maker of the technology behind the Stars Wars Force Trainer and Mattel's MindFlex Duel game, both of which allow players to levitate balls with the power of their minds.
That doesn't mean that office workers can sit back, think about the sentences they want to write, and have them magically appear on the screen. "If you're an able-bodied individual, typing words on a keyboard is just so much quicker and more reliable than doing it with the brain control interfaces," says MIT Media Lab's Holtzman.
A paralyzed person may benefit greatly from being able to pick out letters or move a paintbrush simply by thinking about it, he says. And moving a racecar around a track with your mind is a fun parlor trick. But it's still easier just to use a real paintbrush, or simply pick up the car with your hands and move it around.
But where mind reading can directly benefit an office worker is in picking up the user's mood, he says.
For example, if the user is stressed or in a rush, a mailbox could sort itself to put the priority emails at the top -- then highlight the fun ones from friends when the user is relaxed.
"And if I'm tense and concentrating, it may delay my text alerts and messages instead of interrupting me," he says.
And it's not just facial expressions or mind scans that can be used to make computers switch modes. Today's smartphones and tablets are equipped with a variety of sensors, including GPS trackers, clocks, microphones, accelerometers, gyroscopes and compasses that can tell the device if it's moving, how it's being held, where it's located, what time of day it is, and much more.
For example, says Hamid Najafi, senior director of application engineering at sensor technology company InvenSense, a smartphone should be able to tell when the user is in a movie theater or on an airplane, or working out in a gym, or asleep, or tied up in a meeting. It could automatically switch to silent mode in theaters and during meetings, he says.
"And there are many, many other tasks the phone can do if it intelligently integrates the inputs from all sensors and becomes an active companion to you, rather than just a passive device that you can access when needed," he says.