The Future Is Now: Robert Chappell of EyeTech Digital Systems On How Their Technological Innovation Will Shake Up The Tech Scene
“Begin with the end in mind” is not always true. It is almost impossible to see the end from the beginning. You really just need to be able to see from one ridge to the next.
As a part of our series about cutting edge technological breakthroughs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Robert Chappell.
Robert Chappell is Chief Science Officer of EyeTech Digital Systems and a member of the company’s board of directors. He co-founded EyeTech in 1996 and has more than 30 years of technology industry experience, including engineering design, software development, project management, and executive leadership.
In his roles, Robert has guided EyeTech to a position of leadership in the eye tracking industry. EyeTech is a manufacturer of eye-tracking hardware and software that is used by leading companies in many industries including but not limited to consumer electronics, assistive technology, medical devices, automotive, research, and interactive displays.
Robert’s background includes experience working for Lockheed Martin and TD Williamson, where he did engineering design and software development for DSP and image processing systems. He graduated with a BS in Electrical Engineering in 1983 and a master’s degree in Electrical Engineering in 1984 from Brigham Young University. He is a long time resident of Arizona.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
My career in the field of precision eye-tracking began with my own need. I was working as an engineer writing software and signal processing code for a pipeline company and I was up against a deadline. Over the course of many long hours spent coding for the project, I developed a repetitive strain injury in my hands and arms. Shortly after the project wrapped, I took some time off to rest as I awaited the birth of my oldest daughter. When the soreness didn’t abate after a week, I realized my injury was more serious than I initially thought. Although medication and hand therapy helped some, I began looking for alternative ways to use the computer so I could get back to work. I tried voice dictation tools, new keyboards and mice, and a dictation assistant as possible solutions to my problem, but none were really conducive to coding. I honestly began to wonder if I would have to change careers.
Around that time, I started to learn about assistive technology, which is used to support the functional capabilities of persons with disabilities. I was aware of eye tracking, but its uses were limited at that point. It was then that I realized I could build my own solution to help not only myself but others who couldn’t use their arms as well. I spent $1,600 on a computer and got to work. I developed the first viable “eye mouse” for Windows computers and later a compact USB version that became a best seller. To help develop the business, I recruited my sister to join me and we started EyeTech Digital Systems.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
My eye tracking origin story was definitely the most interesting thing that happened to me as far as my career goes. Entrepreneurship was never part of my life plan. Nonetheless, we started EyeTech as a garage shop, putting in a few thousand of our own money to get started. I remember our very first eye-tracker sale was to a defense contractor. He wasn’t at liberty to reveal how the technology would be used, but the positive feedback he gave us was incredibly encouraging and really motivated us to carry on.
Another interesting thing that stands out to me has been observing the change in technology over time and how different pieces have come together to enable growth in the industry. That progress continues with AI now coming into the picture.
Can you tell us about the Cutting edge technological breakthroughs that you are working on? How do you think that will help people?
I see eye tracking technology becoming quite ubiquitous. Currently, we help the most severely handicapped, but we see it helping an even broader audience in the near future. Healthcare applications are especially important. More than 50 percent of the brain is involved with visual processing. Things like brain injury, disease, and cognitive impairment almost always show up in eye movements. Autistic individuals, for example, typically look at things differently — they focus on different objects in an image — than would a typical person. Other conditions, such as Parkinson’s Disease, may slow down the movement of the eyes. Precision eye-tracking technology offers a simple, non-invasive procedure that can be used to diagnose those patient conditions earlier by measuring how fast the eyes move, track, and focus, as well as what draw’s the patient’s attention. This can be immensely valuable as a quantifiable, numerical, secondary confirmation of diagnoses.
Touch-free interfaces represent another emerging use case. The ability to use your eyes to access and control fixtures and devices rather than having to touch them is especially important as we attempt to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus during the current pandemic. Visual control of information kiosks with hand sanitizer beside doors, for example, can go a long way to address sanitation concerns by reducing physical contact. Eye tracking technology can also offer doctors and caregivers a hands-free interface during surgery or when engaging with high-risk patients. The technology can be deployed in clinical settings, as well as the patient’s home.
Precision eye tracking is particularly accurate, with robust sensors that function even in the dark. There is, of course, still room for improvement, but we’re only beginning to scratch the surface on fundamental use cases of the technology.
How do you think this might change the world?
Although the basic concept originated hundreds of years ago, in many respects eye tracking is on the leading edge of technology, particularly as it spills out of traditional niche areas into more mainstream applications. Devices have improved tremendously over time, growing from analog cameras and frame grabbers on desktop PCs to digital channels with USB connections or embedded directly into devices. We have a Nexus of technologies — sensors, processors, AI, optics — all coming together now. Last year, EyeTech made the jump from USB-based eye-tracking to tablet devices with eye-tracking built-in. Multi megapixel sensors, optics, and hardware elements are all much more affordable today, resulting in devices that are better and less expensive, which makes them more accessible to the general public.
The improved accessibility of augmentative and alternative communication, or AAC, devices is bringing greater equity to healthcare and the world at large. At EyeTech, we are trying to normalize AAC technology. By doing so, we’re leveling the playing field for the disabled, offering them new avenues to fit into and engage with society. The severely challenged use eye-tracking systems for basic communication. Other power users leverage the technology to do things like computer-aided design. One user even created a painting using our EyeOn system. These users feel enabled to be part of the economy and society.
Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?
There was one time when we built a giant eye tracker device that we set up at the Arizona Science Center. People were able to walk up and use their eyes to control a game being projected on a large television screen six feet away. I remember watching kids use this and hearing one say, “Wow, that thing read my mind!” In that regard, the technology can feel almost a bit too intrusive —
something that always knows where you’re looking. I can envision brands using eye tracking platforms to monitor what consumers are looking at, unbeknownst to the buyer.
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?
Three distinct tipping points come to mind. The first was when I sustained the injury that prompted me to seek a better solution for alternative communication. The second was the moment of inspiration that led me to develop my own eye-tracker device to help not only myself but others too. The third tipping point was when the first bits of product feedback began coming in. We loaned a system to someone at a handicap support organization in Washington state. When they conveyed how impressed they were with the EyeTech system, we realized we had a viable product on our hands. That outside validation from someone dealing with challenges of the severely handicapped on a day to day basis helped us recognize our true growth potential.
What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?
We really need increased awareness of the technology. Eye tracking is still a minority tech; the average person has never heard of or tried it. I see a space where it can be common. A big part of growing that awareness is through the software that makes use of it. In the AAC world, that has proven to be the case. As companies come out with better and better software, we’ll see amplified use. The core functionality is good enough today to facilitate medical testing, but there needs to be additional time put into the software AI algorithms that can detect and identify underlying disease.
What have you been doing to publicize this idea? Have you been using any innovative marketing strategies?
We brought in VC three years ago which has definitely helped promote the business by enabling us to bring on additional expertise and resources. We’ve also grown our channel partner footprint, as well as made public relations investments in an attempt to publicize patient stories and use cases.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My sister and EyeTech co-founder, Melinda Trego, has been invaluable. It’s great to have someone you can trust. She has stuck with the business for 20 years now and continues to contribute to our growth, along with dozens of others who have joined us. My wife, Heidi, has also been incredibly supportive. Even when things got crazy, she never put up a fight. EyeTech was initially launched as a side business and I took an unpaid leave of absence from my day job for several months to get our first eye tracker off the ground. Even when our car broke down during development, she was okay with going a while with no transportation if it meant we could fund our eye-tracking endeavor. I definitely don’t think we’d be where we are today without her much-appreciated sacrifice.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
What has indicated to me that we’ve brought goodness to the world is the thank you notes we’ve received. One ALS patient sent an email to the effect of, “Thank you for the device, it has made life worth living.” We’ve received variations of that note from many people over the years and it always serves as a stark reminder of the sense of equity EyeTech brings to people. I received a phone call just a couple of months ago from a user who wanted to thank me personally. I wish I could adequately quantify how much that means to me. It reminds me that we are doing important work. The world is a better place when everyone can participate.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- “Begin with the end in mind” is not always true. It is almost impossible to see the end from the beginning. You really just need to be able to see from one ridge to the next.
- It will always be harder than you think it will be. It always takes longer than expected. That said, it is worth it in the end. Do the work.
- Bring in people who can do the stuff you can’t do when starting a business. I’m a tech builder and inventor so I needed help in other areas.
- Find the right balance between mentoring and autonomy with new employees, especially younger ones. There comes a point when you need to step back and let them go on their own, and let the company go on its own to some degree. Within the past years, I transitioned to Chief Science Officer instead of CEO because we have a strong team now.
- In tech, you will need funding.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Technology for philanthropy. If you can find people in this world who are desperate for something and you can help them get that thing or service, that’s worth doing. It’s great to have a technology company, but if you can answer a desperate need, you can make a big impact.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Seek and ye shall find.” There is help out there. Look to your friends, family, God, and faith.
Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
Eye tracking is in the very early stages of adoption. It is the next great human-machine interface. There is still a lot of room for improvement in the technology and applications, making it a good time to invest. Eye-tracking also provides an amazingly comprehensive view into the brain. Simple, non-intrusive, eye-tracking tests will be the norm in many medical practices in the not-too-distant future.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can connect with me at email@example.com or on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/robert-chappell-099a945/. You can also follow EyeTech on LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/company/eyetech-digital-systems/), Twitter (https://twitter.com/eyetechds?lang=en), Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/eyetechds/), and YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCUlEiZY4kn_zZqszOrZYC_A).
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.