Looking back: Canon’s eye-controlled focus

Looking back: Canon’s eye-controlled focus

The Canon EOS 5 (known as the EOS A2/A2E in the Americas) was the world’s first SLR cam with eye-controlled focus.

Over the past couple of years, we have actually become spoiled by a great deal of excellent autofocus innovations like face detection, tap-to-focus, and subject tracking. However prior to we had those things, we had Canon’s eye-controlled focus, an innovation that made its appearance in film SLRs, but which never quite made the dive to digital cameras.

For those not familiar with eye-controlled focus, let me offer a fast primer. The system made its debut way back in 1992 on the EOS A2E, and remained part of the Canon system until the EOS Elan 7NE in 2004. It assured ‘focus where you look’ functionality, suggesting you could trigger your AF point of choice simply by looking at it.

As I remember, there were usually 2 sets of users when it concerned this innovation: those for whom it worked, and those for whom it absolutely didn’t. There weren’t numerous in between.

Even today, whenever we review a Canon cam, somebody will publish a remark expressing a desire for Canon to bring back eye-controlled focus. And I have to confess, I’m right there with them. I have excellent memories of it.

The Canon EOS Elan IIE, presented in 1995, had a 3-point autofocus system with eye-controlled focus.

I got my first taste of eye-controlled focus on the EOS Elan II E, and quickly fell in love with it. In fact, I liked utilizing it a lot that I changed from a Nikon to a Canon system. The capability to focus by eye was simply too much to withstand.

I later on updated to the EOS 3- still among my favorite video cameras of all time- which had a far more innovative 45-point AF system. Eye control on the EOS 3 was more advanced than on the Elan II E: it had a calibration procedure that included looking at chosen AF points in a prescribed manner, enabling the cam to tailor its reaction to your eye. Allegedly, if you duplicated the calibration procedure under different conditions, performance would enhance with time.

The EOS 3 likewise had the ability to save 3 registers of calibration data. This was particularly beneficial for glasses users due to the fact that you might use one register to calibrate for your naked eye, and another to adjust while wearing glasses or contact lenses.

Did it work? It depends on who you ask. Even around the DPReview workplace, you’ll find opposing views. In my experience, the system didn’t constantly land on the precise AF point that I wanted to use, but it normally landed close enough that it wasn’t a problem. At least that’s the method I remember it.

But as all of us understand, memories can be selective. I sometimes question if eye-controlled focus was as good as I remember it being, or if those memories are simply an outcome of fond memories for a bygone innovation. To find out, I pulled those old Canon cams out of a closet and put them to the test.

Unlike the Elan IIE, whose autofocus points were really far apart, the EOS 3’s 45 autofocus points were packed really close together. This made it more difficult to activate a single, specific AF point by eye. (Diagram from the EOS 3 Instruction Manual.)

So, would I exchange today’s contemporary AF systems for eye-controlled focus? Not a chance. Features like face detection (and even eye detection) in fact solve the ‘where to focus’ problem in most cases, and features like subject tracking would be tough to give up.

Nevertheless, I still enjoy the concept of eye-control focus and think it would have an useful put on today’s electronic cameras. There are times when I’m moving focus points around with a joystick or D-pad and discover myself believing ‘I wish I could just look at my topic and focus.’

Innovation has advanced a lot in the past couple decades. When eye-controlled focus was presented in 1992, Microsoft was just releasing Windows 3.1, and CERN was still rolling out this new thing called’ The Web.’ In that context, I’m sure a modern-day eye-controlled focus system could be a lot more efficient, and work for a greater percentage of users, than one presented throughout the film period.

So here’s my plea to Canon: Please consider bringing back eye-controlled focus!

I believe that many of you reading this utilized eye-controlled focus eventually. How did it work for you? Would you prefer to see it added to contemporary AF systems? Or, am I entirely off my rocker, chasing down an useless innovation that should never see the light of day again? Let me know in the comments.

The Canon EOS 3, introduced in 1998, had a sophisticated 45-point autofocus system with eye-controlled focus.

The Elan II E worked just as well as I remembered it, carrying out at about 90% accuracy in my hands. However, it’s worth keeping in mind that this camera had a fairly rudimentary 3-point AF system, with well-isolated AF points. Essentially, the electronic camera just needed to find out which 3rd of the viewfinder you were looking at to select the right AF point.

The EOS 3 was a little a various story. Its 45 AF points were crowded close together, requiring a greater degree of precision when responding to eye motion. I could dependably get it to focus on the general area of the viewfinder I was looking at, however not with the degree of precision I remember.

With a little practice, I make certain I could improve my success rate a bit, which is most likely why I remember the system working much better than it carries out in my hands today. Alternatively, it’s nostalgia. To be truthful, I’m not sure which it is.

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