06 May 2009

Eye tracking technology to revolutionise the design process

Researchers from The Open University and the University of Leeds have been awarded £195k from the Leverhulme Trust to develop an intuitive computer aided design (CAD) system that could revolutionise the design process. They will examine how eye tracking technology could recognise which parts of design sketches the designer is interested in, and automatically suggest developments of that element.

Dr Steve Garner, Principal Investigator and Senior Lecturer in Design at The Open University, said: “Our starting point was thinking about what type of computer systems designers will be using in 15 or 20 years’ time. We believe that in the future, CAD systems will work alongside designers to stimulate and enhance their creativity by offering suggestions and highlighting alternative options right from the earliest point in the design process, when they’re sketching out their ideas.”

The research builds on a prototype CAD system funded through the Designing for the 21st Century programme, a joint initiative between the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. The Design Synthesis and Shape Generation project (DSSG) produced the world’s first 3D shape grammar-based design system, which succeeded in overcoming a major limitation in current shape grammar-based systems – that of recognising ‘sub-shapes’ in early design sketches.

Alison McKay, Professor of Design Systems at the University of Leeds, explains: “Sub-shapes or emergent shapes are those created when two or more shapes intersect. For example, if two squares overlap diagonally, we see a third square created in the middle. But in conventional CAD terms, this middle square doesn’t exist, because it has not been previously defined in the programming and is therefore ignored by the CAD system for design purposes. But in real life, designers use such ambiguities within their sketches to inspire further design developments using their creativity and experience and we succeeded in developing a system that could assist that process from the start.”

The new project takes the DSSG software a radical step further by adding eye tracking capability into the mix. It’s a step that could ultimately see the designer and software working in complete creative harmony.

“When we’re interested in something or when part of a picture catches our eye, our eyes are naturally drawn back to that part several times over. The eye tracking device could detect this interest and intuitively make suggestions to inspire the design development without the designer having to interrupt his or her train of thought to instruct the computer to work on a certain part,” Professor McKay continued.

“The designer wouldn’t have to physically interact with the software – the software would already be in tune, ready to support the creative process by suggesting new ways of seeing the possibilities a shape can offer.”

Further information
Dr Steve Garner, Faculty of Mathematics, Computing and Technology, The Open University. Tel: 01908 655784 or Email:

Professor Alison McKay, University of Leeds. Tel: 0113 343 2217 or Email

Editor's Notes
1. The cross-disciplinary Design Group at The Open University is ranked 3rd in the UK for the quality of its research out of a field of 72, with 80% of its research graded as world leading or internationally excellent (2008 Research Assessment Exercise). It aligns closely with the OU’s Centre for Research in Computing, which is in the UK top 20 for its field, with 70% of its research world leading or internationally excellent in fields related to software design and the utility of ambient, ubiquitous and pervasive technologies.

This year The Open University is celebrating forty years as a major UK institution that delivers world-leading excellence in teaching, research and knowledge transfer. It has more than 200,000 students in over 40 countries and the research activities of its academic staff, based at its Walton Hall campus, benefit from partnerships with research groups from around the world.

The University’s freely accessible repository of nearly 10,000 research publications, Open Research Online, is the eighth largest university repository in the UK.

2. The Faculty of Engineering at the University of Leeds is ranked 7th* in the UK for the quality of its research (2008 Research Assessment Exercise) with 75% of the Faculty’s research activity rated as internationally excellent or world leading.

With 700 academic and research staff and 3,000 students the Faculty is a major player in the field with a track record of experience across the full spectrum of the engineering and computing disciplines. The Faculty of Engineering is home to five schools: civil engineering; computing; electronic and electrical engineering; mechanical engineering; process, environmental and materials engineering.

Two thirds of students are undergraduates with the remaining third split evenly between taught masters and research degrees. The Faculty attracts staff and students from all around the world; one third of students are from outside the UK and representing over 90 different nationalities.

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