There's plenty new in iPadOS 15, but it also features an under-sung accessibility upgrade: support for third-party eye-tracking devices. That'll allow people with disabilities to use iPad apps and speech generation software simply through eye movements — no touchscreen interaction required. Tobii Dynavox, the assistive tech division of the eye-tracking company Tobii, worked with Apple for years to help make that happen. And now, the firm is ready to announce TD Pilot, a device that aims to bring the iPad experience to the estimated 50 million people globally who need communication assistance.
The TD Pilot is basically a super-powered frame for Apple's tablets: It can fit in something as big as the iPad Pro 12.9-inch, and it also packs in large speakers, an extended battery and a wheelchair mount. It's thankfully water and dust-resistant, so it'll survive time in a rainstorm or even a user's shower. There's also a secondary "Partner Window" on the back that spells out what a TD Pilot user is saying, which aims to make conversation feel more natural. Most importantly, though, it features Tobii Dynavox's latest eye-tracking sensor, which is powerful enough to work in bright sunlight.
This isn't exactly new territory for the company: It's been producing popular Windows-powered assistive devices for years. But, as CEO Fredrik Ruben tells Engadget, TD Pilot gives users with disabilities the same sort of flexibility that the non-disabled have. Some may not need the full power of a Windows PC, or maybe they'd just rather deal with the simpler interface on an iPad. TD Pilot users will also be able use eye tracking to play some iPadOS games—so long as they don't require extremely rapid movement.
While Tobii Dynavox is the current market leader in eye-tracking solutions, a smaller company ended up delivering iPad support first. Inclusive Technology's Skyle launched last year, and it allows for gaze control by tapping into the iPad's Assistive Touch feature. That was originally meant for mice and other input devices. Consequently, Ruben claims that technique is more like emulated tracking, since it involves staring at a cursor to move it around. Still, a short review from the YouTube channel Products for pALS was pretty favorable (and also had some less kind things to say about Tobii Dynavox's dated software).
Skyle's $2,995 price may also be another advantage if your insurance doesn't cover TD Pilot. Ruben tells us that Tobii Dynavox has around 400 insurance contracts already, and its devices are already covered by Medicare and Medicaid. Without insurance, though, the total cost of the TD Pilot could run up to $10,000, not including the cost of the iPad. Part of that cost would also go towards getting the device set up, as well as paying for Tobii Dynavox's software.
When I tried out Tobii's eye-tracking technology in VR a few years ago, it felt like a superpower. I could hit a far-off target with a rock simply by focusing on it. It's not hard to see how useful that technology could be with an iPad for users with disabilities. Last year, we said that assistive technology still had a long way to go, despite a bit of progress from companies like Microsoft and Google. So, at the least, it's heartening to see another solution pop up—especially one that forced Apple to open up its restrictive ecosystem in the name of accessibility.