Google Patent Tracks Eye Movement, Like When You're Wearing Glass

Last week, Google's patent for a gaze tracking system was approved by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The proposed system tracks the eye movements of the users of "a head mounted gaze tracking device" -- like, say, Google Glass -- as they react to external images -- like, say, advertisements.

In April, Google forbid Glass apps from serving up ads. Tech commentators like Motherboard's Zach Sokel wondered if this meant Google was changing its ad-focused business model.

Maybe not.

Google's patent refers to a system of "pay per gaze," in which registered advertisers pay Google every time a Glass user looks at an ad in his or her external field of vision. The patent mentions identifying ads seen by users on "billboards, magazines, newspapers, and other forms of conventional print media" -- but also mentions the technology's ability to "determine which on-screen elements draw the user eye." The pay-per-gaze system could even track a viewer's emotional engagement with an ad, by measuring pupil dilation and retraction.

As part of pay-per-gaze, Google could keep logs of users' eye movements. Perhaps already anticipating privacy concerns, the patent says the process may be opt-in or opt-out, and advertisers may be restricted to receiving "anonymous analytics." Still, it looks like the next step down the sci-fi road toward that scene in "Minority Report," in which Tom Cruise's character is bombarded by ads tailored directly to him.

As notes, however, a patent is just a patent -- not even a prototype these days, not a product.

Google offered a similarly soothing statement, "We hold patents on a variety of ideas. Some of those ideas later mature into real products or services, some don't. Prospective product announcements should not necessarily be inferred from our patents."

According to a spokesperson for Google Glass, the Glass team has no plans to use this patent now or in the foreseeable future.

In other words, Google's gaze-measuring ways remain hypothetical. Let the debate over eye tracking begin.

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