Startup Positive Science keeps an eye on the eye

View of driving and an infant from Positive Science’s headwear.








Every once in a while as a tech journalist, you stumble upon something that truly takes your breath away. Amid the stories on the newest cloud computing software, the latest in software as a service and, in Rochester, the litany of different applications of optics and light, there’s rarely a lack of smart people doing profound work.

But it’s rarer moments where you’re truly dumbfounded. Such an experience swept me as I sat in the lobby of the Luminate NY incubator alongside Jason Babcock, founder of Positive Science, looking directly through the eyes of an orangutan on his laptop screen as it foraged through its enclosure in search of an apple.

Positive Science specializes in wearable eye tracking technology which uses infrared sensors to track the pupil. In practice, the result is video imaging similar to a GoPro camera view with a crosshair moving rapidly. That crosshair corresponds to a smaller thumbnail view of the subject’s eye. Essentially, wherever the crosshair lands is exactly where the subject is looking.

“The way it works is that you have a camera that’s looking at your eyeball and it’s under the infrared spectrum, and there’s another camera that’s looking out at the scene, so it’s the ‘scene camera’ and the ‘eye camera,’” Babcock said. “And that records the point of view from the person’s perspective. What our eye tracking software does is it takes the eye tracking position and maps it to where the person is looking. This technique is called calibration.”

Once a subject’s eye position is calibrated, the software can determine gaze, or the area precisely where a subject is looking. The applications for that technology is nearly endless, from police training to market studies to, as in the case of the orangutan, animal research.

“Let’s say you’re trying to train a first responder on how to visibly assess a scene,” Babcock said. “You can ask a (trainee) a lot of questions like ‘what did you look at’ or ‘what did you pay attention to, what caught your eye?’ But the only real way to do an analysis is to put an eye-tracking system on them.”

Positive Science was founded in 2006 by Babcock, with support of RIT Imaging Sciences professor Jeff Pelz, with many of these applications in mind, but with infant research as a key focus. Babcock showed another video, made for a prominent toy manufacturer, which tracked the eyes of a 1-year-old as he played. When the word “sun” was spoken, the child’s eyes gazed upwards towards a cartoon sun poking from the top of the play center.

“This is the best way we really have to understand what’s going on inside a child’s head,” Babcock said. “Even if they can’t speak or show a physical response to a word, tracking the gaze lets us see, in real time, how they’re putting things together. And that’s important for the companies too, because it helps them see exactly how effective their toys are at engaging the child.”

That goes for advertising and branding too. Another video showed a person shopping for batteries, the crosshair bouncing off of a particular facet of the wall of packages. Zoom in and what do you find? The crosshair consistently landing on price tags. The study concluded price was the most significant factor in battery purchases.

There’s about 250 Positive Science units in use all over the world, the majority of which are used in research applications, including at Malaysia’s National Zoo, where the orangutan video was taken by professor Neil Mennie of the University of Nottingham. As the company grows and moves toward more expansive manufacturing, Babcock is insistent on his plans to stay in Rochester.

“We bought a house, we’re committed, and this actually happened well before the Luminate program,” Babcock said. “We moved in about a year and a half ago, and NextCorps, which at the time was High Tech Rochester, that was one of the reasons that we decided to stay in Rochester.

“We were looking for different places to live. There was Seattle, there was Austin, because I’m from Dallas, and Rochester was on the radar. I came down when The Entrepreneurs Network was doing a presentation on their final project at the Eastman School, and I just couldn’t believe it, this place has become an entrepreneurs dream,” Babcock said.

A vibrant network of resources that are accessible is an advantage he sees Rochester having over New York City for startups. As far as Luminate NY goes, it’s a program which he sees as invaluable to the future of the company. which is bright at the moment, with the first full-time employee hired on Monday, May 14 and significant growth slated over the next year to year-and-a-half. But like many startups, Positive Science might have solid tech, but their business end, by Babcock’s own admission, needs work.

“It’s been amazingly eye-opening,” Babcock said. “I’ve run a business for 11 years, and it’s amazing what I wish I would have known 10 years ago. If I had something like this 10 years ago, I would be a much different business, maybe made some much smarter decisions, maybe be able to anticipate some of the things that came up that I never would have thought of.” 653-4022

Spotlight on Luminate

Ten companies composed of some of the brightest minds in the field of optics, imaging and photonics are fine-tuning their technologies inside NextCorps’ Luminate accelerator. The winners of November’s first Lightning Awards, these companies each received $100,000 in funding, free residency in the accelerator and access to High Tech Rochester’s web of resources and mentoring. In June, the most promising of these 10 will receive a total of $2 million in follow-on funding. Leading up to June, the Rochester Business Journal will feature profiles of the companies holding the keys to the next chapter in Rochester’s history as the world’s imaging center.