Skyle – out of the blue

Anybody working with Assistive Technology (AT) knows how useful Apple iOS devices are. Over the years they have gradually built in a comprehensive and well-designed range of AT supports that go a long way to accommodating every access need. This is no small feat. In 2009 VoiceOver transformed what was essentially a smooth featureless square of glass with almost no tactile information, into the preferred computing device for blind people. In 2019 Voice Control and the improvements made to Assistive Touch filled two of the last big gaps in the area of “hands free” control of iOS. All this great work is not completely altruistic however as it has resulted in Apple mobile devices cementing their place as the preeminent platform in the area of disability and AT. It is because of this that it has always been somewhat of a mystery why there has never been a commercial eye tracking option available for either iOS or MacOS. Perhaps not so much iOS as we will see but certainly one would have thought an eyegaze solution for the Apple desktop OS could be a viable product.

There are a few technical reasons why iOS never has supported eyegaze. Firstly, up until the newer generations of eye gaze peripherals, eye gaze needed a computer with a decent spec to work well. iPads are Mobile devices and Apple originally made no apologies for sacrificing performance for more important mobile features like reducing weight, thickness and increasing battery life. As eye trackers evolved and got more sophisticated, they began to process more of the massive amount of gaze data they take in. So rather than passing large amounts of raw data straight through to the computer via USB 3 or Firewire they process the data first themselves. This means less work for the computer and connection with less bandwidth can be used. Therefore, in theory, an iPad Pro could support something like a Tobii PC Eye Mini but in practice, there was still one major barrier. iOS did not support any pointing device, let alone eye tracking devices. That was until last September’s iOS update. iOS 13 or iPadOS saw upgrades to the Assistive Touch accessibility feature that allowed it to support access to the operating system using a pointing device.     

iPad Pro 12" in black case with Skyle eye tracker
iPad Pro 12″ with Skyle eye tracker and case

It is through Assistive Touch that the recently announced Skyle for iPad Pro is possible. “Skyle is the world’s first eye tracker for iPad Pro” recently announced by German company EyeV https://eyev.de/ (who I admit I have not previously heard of). Last week it appeared as a product on Inclusive Technology for £2000 (ex VAT). There is very little information on the manufacturer website about Skyle so at this stage all we know is based on the Inclusive Technology product description (which is pretty good thankfully). The lack of information about this product (other than the aforementioned) significantly tempers my initial excitement on hearing that there is finally an eye tracking solution for iOS. There are no videos on YouTube (or Inclusive Technology), no user reviews anywhere. I understand it is a new product but it is odd for a product to be on the market before anybody has had the opportunity of using it and posting a review. I hope I am wrong but alarm bells are ringing. We’ve waited 10 years for eye tracking on iOS, why rush now?

Leaving my suspicion behind there are some details on Inclusive Technology which will be of interest to potential customers. If you have used a pointing device through Assistive Touch on iPadOS you will have a good idea of the user experience. Under Cursor in the Assistive Touch settings you can change the size and colour of the mouse cursor. You will need to use the Dwell feature to automate clicks and the Assistive Touch menu will hive you access to all the other gestures needed to operate the iPad. Anyone who works with people who use eye tracking for computer access will know that accuracy varies significantly from person to person. Designed for touch, targets in iPadOS (icons, menus) are not tiny, they are however smaller than a cell in the most detailed Grid used by a highly accurate eyegaze user. Unlike a Windows based eye gaze solution there are no additional supports, for example a Grid overlay or zooming to help users with small targets. Although many users will not have the accuracy to control the iPad with this device (switch between apps, change settings) it could be a good solution within an AAC app (where cell sizes can be configured to suit user accuracy) or a way of interacting with one of the many cause and effect apps and games. Again however, if you have a particular app or activity in mind please don’t assume it will work, try before you buy. It should be noted here that Inclusive Technology are offering a 28 Day returns policy on this product.

There is a Switch input jack which will offer an alternative to Dwell for clicking or could be set to another action (show Assistive Touch menu maybe). I assume you could also use the switch with iOS Switch Control which might be a work around for those who are not accurate enough to access smaller targets with the eye gaze device. It supports 5 and 9 point calibration to improve accuracy. I would like to see a 2 point calibration option as 5 points can be a stretch for some early eyegaze users. It would also be nice if you could change the standard calibration dot to something more likely to engage a child (cartoon dog perhaps).

Technical specs are difficult to compare between eye trackers on the same platform (Tobii v EyeTech for example) so I’m not sure what value it would be to compare this device with other Windows based eye trackers. That said some specs that will give us an indication of who this device may be appropriate for are sample rate and operating distance. Judging by the sample rate (given as 18Hz max 30Hz) the Skyle captures less than half the frames per second of its two main Windows based competitors (Tobii 30 FPS TM5 42 FPS). However even 15 FPS should be more than enough for accurate mouse control. The operating distance (how far the device is from the user) for Skyle is 55 to 65 cm which is about average for an eyegaze device. However only offering a range of 10 cm (Tobii range is 45cm to 85 cm, so 40 cm) as well as the photo below which shows the positioning guide both indicate that this not a solution for someone with even a moderate amount of head movement as the track box (area where eyes can be successfully tracked) seems to be very small.

the positioning guide in the skyle app. letterbox view of a persons eyes. seems to indicate only movement of a couple of centimeters is possible before going out of view.
Does the user have to keep their position within this narrow area or does Skyle use facial recognition to adjust to the user’s position? If it’s the former this solution will not be appropriate for users with even a moderate amount of head movement.

In summary if you are a highly accurate eyegaze user with good head control and you don’t wear glasses.. Skyle could offer you efficient and direct hands free access to your iPad Pro. It seems expensive at €2500 especially if you don’t already own a compatible iPad (add at least another €1000 for an iPad Pro 12”). If you have been waiting for an eyegaze solution for iOS (as I know many people have) I would encourage you to wait a little longer. When the opportunity arises, try Skyle for yourself. By that time, there may be other options available.

If any of the assumptions made here are incorrect or if there is anymore information available on Skyle please let us know and we will update this post.