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June 25, 2009

Maryland Tech: Protecting your computer screen from the "shoulder surfers"

billAnderson.jpgEvery once in a while, I get to see -- and sometimes write about -- a fascinating new product before the consumer masses get to it. It's one of the cool perks of being a journalist, really.

That happened to me recently, when Bill Anderson (left) of Oculis Labs Inc., in Owings Mills, gave me and some colleagues here at The Baltimore Sun a demo of his new software: "Chameleon" and "PrivateEye." (Here's my full story on how he launched his company and came up with the idea.) 

Here's what Chameleon does: it uses sophisticated gaze-tracking technology to dynamically render the words and images on a computer monitor so that only the authorized user can read them. It's accurate down to about one single character. If someone is peeking over your shoulder (aka "shoulder surfing"), all they will see is dummy text that is constantly changing. You, the user, will be able to read the text you choose to read wherever your eyes wander on the screen.

I tried reading the documents -- a Word and an Excel document -- over Anderson's shoulder, and I could not. I had no idea where his eyes were and the text was constantly changing on me.  

For now, big government agencies involved in military/intelligence operations are the most likely ideal customers because it requires some special hardware (the gaze-tracking equipment), and the price tag ain't cheap. Anderson bills Chameleon as a way for people to protect their monitors, which can be critical in battlefield and intelligence operations, where super-spies with powerful telephoto lenses can peer over your shoulder from a very long ways away.

For consumers, there's a lighter-weight version, PrivateEye. Here's what that does: It taps into your computer's Web cam (that's the only hardware you need) and uses face-detection technology so that your computer knows when you turn away from the screen. As soon as you turn away, the screen softly blurs. Ideal for office situations where privacy of information is paramount, such as medical settings, financial institutions, law firms, etc.

Anderson gave us a tour of the software and we shot some video. Check it out below!

This is an archived version of the technology blog. For updated coverage, see the current baltTech location:
Posted by Gus Sentementes at 1:46 PM | | Comments (8)
Categories: Gadgets, Government Tech, Startups, Venture Cap


Gus -

I've met Bill a few times at tech investment events in the area. He's a great guy with a wicked product. He demoed it while I was at one event and it works great.

You can actually sit there and read a text document and someone RIGHT next to you just sees all kinds of random words bouncing around on the screen.

Yeah, I'll admit: my mind was blown when I saw it. -gs

Couldn't this also be used to cover up illegal actions? I mean, if someone at the CIA was a double agent and wanted to conduct actions against the U.S., they could do that in plain site without being protected, all the while appearing to be doing his/her job.

Other than that, the technology looks really cool!

Daniel - one would hope there would be safeguards in place to prevent that. Could the same eye-tracking software or hardware be used to detect nervousness or something out-of-place compared to the user's normal gaze?

That aside, this does sound really cool, but also like it could be a pain if it were to malfunction. I don't think it's unreasonable to say that nothing is ever fully foolproof, so what would happen then?

Some more insight: Bill told me that his software does not actually alter any documents within their files. Instead, it works on the graphics card of a computer, to generate images of fake text around the real text. -gs

I don't see how this would work on cameras though, especially a pinhole or telephoto lens.

How would this (or would it) work when you have multiple monitors?

I'd expect someone with a video recording to be able to extract the genuine text using details such as timing, scanning pattern and meaning.

Someone like this maybe....

Given that one ten-thousandth of our field of vision is processed by one half of the visual processing part of the brain, this technology has massive implications for gaming, where resolution, size and detail are everything.
Imagine a wall with a projected image at 300dpi wherever you glanced. Work out the lags that currently exist and it's an awesome product.

Exactly. You're getting it. This type of tech really offers a whole new way of interacting with monitors. It isn't just about security. -gs

As an example of a time when we are interested in what other people looked at/didn't look at: Imagine what it's like driving with an inexperienced driver, and all the passengers are kind of looking over their shoulder during lane changes, etc. Eye tracking opens the door to all kinds of gaze-aware applications, many of which haven't been imagined yet.

When an application knows exactly what you are looking at/did look at, the system can shift from something to be "monitored" (i.e. something that shows something else) to something that engages with a user, like two people staring into each others eyes during a conversation.


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About Gus G. Sentementes
Gus G. Sentementes (@gussent on Twitter) has been writing for The Baltimore Sun since 2000. He's covered real estate, business, prisons, and suburban and Baltimore City crime and cops. He was one of the first reporters at The Sun to use multimedia tools and Web applications -- a video camera, an iPhone -- to cover breaking news. He hopes to cover Maryland geeks and the gadgets and Web sites they build, and learn -- and share -- something new every day.

Gus has a wife, a young daughter and two feuding cats. They live in Northeast Baltimore.
This is an archived version of the technology blog. For updated coverage, see the current baltTech location:

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