Eye Tracking Through History

Eye tracking – or getting insight into what people actually see while looking at certain content became a regular practice in a wide range of disciplines – from human-computer interaction to marketing research and usability studies. But where did it all startand who were the pioneers of eye tracking? In this post, you will find out more about the beginnings of eye tracking and its progress over time (Figure 1).



Figure 1. A brief history of eye tracking



Origins of eye tracking date back to 1879 when the French ophthalmologist Louis Émile Javal noticed, for the first time, that readers’ eyes do not skim fluently through the text while reading, but make quick movements (saccades) mixed with short pauses (fixations). These studies were based on naked-eye observations in the absence of a more advanced technology.



Figure 2. Louis Émile Javal


First Eye Tracker

In 1908, Edmund Huey built a device which could track eye movement during the reading process. This first eye tracker was very intrusive as readers had to wear a type of contact lens with a small opening for the pupil. The lens was attached to a pointer which changed its position following the movements of the eye. Huey published his findings in the book The Psychology and Pedagogy of Reading.



Figure 3. Edmund Huey


First recordings of eye movements

In 1937, Guy Thomas Buswell, an educational psychologist, used light beams which were reflected on reader’s eyes and recorded them on film. Buswell’s research indicated that there is a significant difference between oral and silent reading, and that one person reads in two different ways at two different moments in time.



Figure 4. Apparatus used for photographing eye movements


Correlation between interest and gaze fixation

Alfred Lukyanovich Yarbus, a Russian psychologist, conducted several eye tracking studies in the 1950s and 1960s. The results showed that the reader’s eye movement and fixation depend on their interest and the given task. For example, if the reader was asked several questions about the shown images, their eyes would focus on those parts which are relevant to the questions (Figure 6). In 1967 he published a highly influential book Eye Movements and Vision.



Figures 5 and 6. Yarbus eye tracker and Data from Yarbus eye tracker


Rapid progress

The research of eye movement and eye tracking thrived during the 1970s and 1980s. In the 1970s the eye trackers became less intrusive, provided better accuracy and were able to separate eye from head movements (Cornsweet and Crane, 1973). At the same time psychological theories started to examine the connection between obtained eye tracking data and cognitive processes. In the 1980s, computers became powerful enough to do eye tracking in real time which enabled application of video-based eye trackers to human-computer interaction.

User Experience and Eye Tracking

At the end of the 1990s, companies such as large advertising agency EURO RSCG started using eye-tracking technology to observe reactions to the Internet content (animated graphics, navigation buttons, online advertisements…). The main incentive for these type of studies was growing potential of the online products and services market. Until then, as only few research explored how to increase the web page effectiveness, a great number of web designers anticipated that the web design should imitate the newspaper layout.



Figure 7. Eye tracking in the 1990s


Business and scientific application of Eye Tracking

From 2000s till today, as eye tracking technology continued to evolve, its application spread to almost every area of life. Eye tracking companies have specialized in providing insights in human behavior for business and scientific purpose. Examples include using eye tracking:

  • as a means of communication for disabled people who can use only their eyes for input;
  • in ophthalmology, for better understanding of eye movements and for development of means to prevent, diagnose and treat abnormalities;
  • for testing usability of websites, software, computer games, mobile devices, etc.
  • in explaining growth and transformation in perceptual, cognitive, and social abilities from infancy through young adulthood.

Eye Tracking in Market Research

Eye tracking technology has been used in market research and for product testing over the past two decades. Knowing what customers see and what stays unseen is the first step towards successful marketing campaign and a reliable way to measure attention given to objects like packaging on a shelf or adverts in newspaper. By analyzing customers’ eye gaze it is possible to gain insight into their visual attention span, which is highly correlated with their behavior and purchase intention. Nowadays, testing of materials before launching is becoming an important part of marketing communication process of world’s leading companies.


At EyeSee we developed our own platform for tracking and recording respondents’ eye gaze. It is webcam based which means that participating in the study requires only a computer/laptop and a webcam.

We recruit respondents via panel companies and expose them to online stimuli (printed ad, TV commercial, website…). While they are looking at it or completing simple tasks we track their eyes to get answers to questions like: which element do they see first, do they notice logo/main message, what keeps their attention for the longest period of time, etc. In addition, EyeSee is the only company in the world which combines online eye tracking and facial coding. This means that we can know e.g. if the brand is visible in highly engaging scenes of a TV Commercial which significantly impacts overall visibility and positive emotional identification with the brand.

EyeSee’s studies are cost effective (2-3 times more than the conventional studies), provide fast results (within 7 days) and can be conducted all over the world.



Figure 8. EyeSee: Webcam based eye tracking



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