For anyone who doesn’t think a year spent trying to work and socialize through video calls could get any worse, behold the Eyecam: an anthropomorphic robotic webcam designed to look like a human eyeball that even blinks and looks around the room. Maybe telephone calls and email weren’t so bad after all?

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The Eyecam was developed by a team of researchers led by Marc Teyssier at the Human-Computer Interaction Lab at Saarland University in Germany. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because Teyssier was also the researcher behind a smartphone covered in artificial skin that a person could interact with using physical touches, strokes, taps, and even pinches. It allowed emotional intentions to be conveyed to a device that can’t otherwise recognize those cues. For some reason we thought that was as creepy as technology could get, but Teyssier is back to prove us wrong.

The research will be presented at the upcoming 2021 ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. The goal is not to scare everyone away from video-conferencing apps like Zoom and Skype—although no one would fault these researchers were that their endgame—but to bring the emotional connection humans experience during one-on-one conversations to our current situation where those interactions aren’t advisable.

Inside the Eyecam’s artificial eyeball is an actual cannibalized webcam sensor and lens, which is surrounded by a fake silicone skull that enables functional eyelids and an animated eyebrow powered by six electric servos standing in for muscles. An Arduino Nano controls all of the motors’ motions while a Raspberry Pi Zero allows this monstrous creation to interface with a PC as a regular old USB webcam. It’s completely open-source, and you can download all the digital files needed to make your own from GitHub. An instructional video of the whole build process is still in the works.

The Eyecam more or less looks like a real human eye (minus the rest of the human), but the real goal of this research is making it move and react like a real human eye does to create a stronger emotional connection with a person you’re only seeing on screen. It’s reminiscent of the robot created by Disney Research designed to simulate a realistic human gaze by replicating the subtle movements humans unconsciously perform. That could be the result of their lungs filling and emptying with air or involuntary reflexes that react to nearby sounds or movement, causing them to break the gaze.

Through the use of facial tracking, there are some interesting future applications for the Eyecam. Instead of just appearing to randomly look around the room during a video call, the eye movements of the person a user is calling could be mapped to and replicated by the Eyecam they’re staring into, creating a deeper emotional connection. A hardware upgrade could even introduce the ability for the robotic eye to shed a tear when things get especially emotional. Although with this thing perched atop your computer, you’ll probably want to do everything you can to keep a conversation light and jovial lest it rain down tears on your pricy hardware.

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