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Apple can revolutionize the TV experience with eye interaction


The TV experience is begging to be reinvented. We all love watching TV so much that we’re willing to put up with the horrible experience of using our TVs. From punching in 3 digit codes to scanning guides that look like Excel spreadsheets.

Apple has the opportunity to revolutionize the TV experience. I believe that Apple will build its own HDTV set and you will use your eyes to interact with it. You will choose what you want to watch by looking at a thumbnail of it. It will have a home button just like iOS, but instead of having to press it you will activate it by looking at it. All interaction will be based on where you look with your eyes.

It won’t have a remote control. You won’t use your iPad. You will just use your eyes to interact and your voice to search with Siri. Steve Jobs said “It will have the simplest user interface you could imagine.” It doesn’t get any simpler than just using your eyes to look at what you want. Your eyes know what you want before your hand does.

Eye interaction technology already exists. With some open source tools and a modified web cam you can setup your own system for around $150. The stage that eye interaction is at is very similar to where multi touch was when Apple introduced the first iPhone. No one has built a mainstream, mass market product using eye interaction. A lot of people also haven’t seen it in action or used it, just like multi touch. It will take some work, but it’s ready for primetime.


When Apple releases new products that break open categories they always include a new innovative user interface. These new interfaces are far more useful than anything that came before. They massively improve experiences that we value.

Using your eyes to interact with your TV will have the same sense of wonder and magic that we all had when we first used a multi touch screen. Imagine just looking at what you want and having it happen. Television is the perfect application for this technology.

TV is a lean back medium. We don’t watch TV to interact we watch it to be entertained and relax. Eye interaction is perfect for TV because it can be a seamless part of the experience. You no longer need any extra devices. You don’t need a remote. You don’t have to wave your arms around. You don’t have to look away from the screen or call out commands.

With eye interaction Apple can forever change the TV experience. The App store for the Apple HDTV will be filled with great ideas from developers who invent new TV experiences that use eye interaction.

It will be a challenge to get eye interaction just right, but Apple has the user experience expertise to make it work beautifully. Eye interaction will have its own simple conventions just like the pinch or swipe in multi touch, but we won’t be blinking to click. Nor will we be swiping with our eyes. The conventions that have come before will not apply to eye interaction. Apple might be the only company that has the skillset to get eye interaction just right.


The opportunities created by eye interaction on Apple TV.

Interacting with just your eyes can be simple and require very little effort. It can open up any number of new opportunities.  What if while watching your favorite competition based reality show you could vote with your eyes instead of calling a phone number? Imagine launching video highlights of a specific player that you’re looking at while watching a football game. When you see the headline of a news story on CNN and want to know more you can interact with it from the couch.

Web video experiences can flow much better with eye interaction. Take for example YouTube. In the living room we don’t want to constantly interact with our TVs so it’s hard to integrate the experience of watching lots of 2-3 minute videos. Eye interaction can change this. After you watch a video choosing the next one is as simple as looking at it. Surfing YouTube can move into the living room.

Eye interaction is perfect for games. It will be interesting because just like multi touch it will start everyone on a pretty level playing field. No one could have predicted that a game like Angry Birds, created by a small startup would become the iconic multi touch game. Eye interaction will probably evolve in a similar way.

Text based social media may have a place on the TV, but it will not be the killer app. Text entry and reading text on a TV is cumbersome and far from ideal. If the experience isn’t better than using an iPad or a laptop it just won’t work. People already heavily use their iPads and phones while they watch TV. Social Media on a TV will not be an order of magnitude better than just using your iPad so it will not be popular. We want to relax and watch, while we post to Facebook on our phones.

With all of that said, developers will no doubt design social experiences built specifically for eye interaction. Just as Instagram built an amazing experience specifically for mobile. There are plenty of opportunity to create engaging social experiences for the TV that don’t focus on text entry.

Recommendation engines will develop in interesting new ways. Eye interaction will provide some very useful data that can improve them. Whether Apple builds their own or if they come from the App store. We tell the world what we want far more easily with our eyes than our hands. The decision starts with our eyes before we ever touch the button. When you’re looking through the guide trying to figure out what to watch it can help to speed up your search or find something you didn’t know about. Or suggest web content that matches the content on the TV schedule.

Eye interaction can revolutionize advertising on TV. Viewers will be able to interact with ads using their eyes. This will be a huge enticement for content owners to come to the Apple TV platform. Advertising is the engine that powers TV. Apple can revolutionize it and put themselves right in the middle. They can build a 30 second app platform for a very valuable piece of advertising. Any TV network will see dollar signs and bring their content to Apple’s platform. Eye tracking will not be part of this. Advertisers will not have access to track what you look at only what you interact with.

iOS devices have one major flaw when it comes to being a remote. They provide no tactile feedback. When you use your TV remote its rare that you actually look at the remote. You feel the buttons and know what you need to hit to cycle through channels or go to specific channels or the guide. Looking at the remote is an interruption in the TV experience. iOS devices cannot function as remotes if you don’t look at them. We also use our iOS devices for a lot of other functions. Web, email, Facebook, texting, apps, do we also want to control the TV with them while all of those other things are going on?

Voice control is great for certain tasks. Telling the TV to go to CNN is a far better UI than entering a 3 digit code on a remote. Voice will be very useful for search or text entry. But that may be as far as it goes. XBox Kinect has voice control, but telling it what to do based on on screen menu items is brutally slow. You have to read each specific menu item out loud. No user interface is quicker than just looking.

When Steve Jobs first decided to tackle the challenge of redesigning the TV experience he started with the set top box. This makes sense in many ways. It’s easier to sell a set top box to lots of people, rather than try to convince them to replace their TV. Steve Jobs realized very quickly that the challenge with set top boxes is the gate keepers. The cable and satelite providers have a big say in what happens with set top boxes. Steve Jobs hated businesses with gate keepers. He wanted to market and sell his products directly to millions of people who can vote on their own without gatekeepers. When he created his own cell phone he explored building his own network to avoid the cell phone carriers. Because of the gate keepers Apple was never really able to compete in the set top box market because they were never able to integrate the full TV experience. Having a limited selection on iTunes wasn’t good enough.

The TV landscape is different now. The FCC now requires cable companies to provide CableCards. These are just like SIM cards in cell phones. They allow 3rd party boxes to access the cable network. This will allow the Apple TV to seamlessly integrate all of the content on cable. Apple is very familiar with SIM cards, it won’t be hard for them to provide CableCards at every Apple store when you purchase your TV.

The TV is a device that literally everyone values. As a commodity business with razor thin margins it is a massive opportunity for innovation. TV manufacturers have been unable to create much in the way of competitive advantage. So far no one has been able to design a new user interface for the TV that is an order of magnitude better. With eye interaction Apple can design a far better experience that will have maximum effect at launch because no one is expecting any innovation in the TV category.

Evidence that Apple is working on eye interaction

The evidence so far isn’t concrete, but there are some definite rumblings.

Terry Gou, Foxconn’s Chairman has assigned two task forces one will work on displays and the other will work on eye-control technology.

More from Patently Apple

“It was rumored in 2009 that Apple had been buying eye-tracking technology components from a Swedish company by the name of Tobii who already has their “Gaze” technology ready for Windows 8. The news of Hon Hai researching this technology suggests that Apple may incorporate this technology in their hardware sometime in the future.”

Cult of Mac has a source who claims to have seen the Apple HDTV prototype.

The camera features the source describes are all consistent with a system that tracks the user’s eyes to enable eye interaction.

“The camera is sophisticated, with facial recognition and the ability to zoom into the user’s face and follow them as they walk around the room. This allows users to make video calls from the couch across the room, rather than having to stand smack in front of the TV.”

Facetime seems better suited for the iPad or iPhone rather than the TV. It seems more likely that these features are used for eye interaction.

Steve Jobs vs. the iPad Stylus Round 2

“If you see a stylus they failed” with those words Steve Jobs planted a tombstone on the stylus. He was completely right. As a user interface method multi touch is far better than a stylus. In fact using your finger to touch the internet is so far superior there really was no competition in the first place.

Steve Jobs during his time at NeXT, explaining his market strategy.

Everyone knows how Steve Jobs felt about the iPad stylus, but very few people know how much he loved to draw his ideas on a whiteboard. In his official biography by Walter Isaacson there are many stories of Steve Jobs drawing on a whiteboard to explain his ideas. Here are a few,

-To explain the concept of the Apple Store to members of the board.

-To show an engineer how the iDVD interface should look and work.

-To create the simple strategy of focusing on a few major products that ended up saving Apple upon his return in 1997.

The iPad is the ultimate whiteboard. You can share your ideas instantly with anyone and keep all of your new ideas with you at all times.

Steve Jobs didn’t change his mind often, but I would like to think that he would have eventually replaced drawing on a whiteboard with drawing on an iPad. He might have even realized that drawing with your finger isn’t easy. It’s a long shot, but just maybe he would have been tempted to find an iPad stylus that he enjoyed using to draw. That’s really what a stylus is by its very nature, a useful tool, not a user interface device.

Sketching something or scribbling a quick note is a completely different method of thinking in comparison to typing in a word document. One is quick and stream of consciousness and the other is much more rational and precise. One is phrases and sketches the other is fully constructed sentences. They are both valuable processes for different reasons. When we’re doing it we don’t realize it consciously, but it is easier to develop ideas when the process is more informal. There’s a reason that Steve Jobs used a whiteboard in meetings. Drawing was a part of his thought process.

Unfortunately we’ll never know if Steve Jobs would have ever come around to using an iPad stylus to draw on his iPad. I would like to think he would have at least been tempted.