Latest News Archive

Please select Category, Year, and then Month to display items
Years
2017 2018 2019 2020
Previous Archive
06 March 2020 | Story Igno van Niekerk | Photo Igno van Niekerk
 Gert Marais looking at pecan leave_
Dr Gert Marais says the UFS is helping to ensure that the pecan industry not only survives but thrives.

“When opportunity knocks, you must jump. The more opportunity knocks, the more you should jump.” 

Look closely, and you will notice the rise in pecan-nut plantations as you travel through South Africa. Do not be surprised if you find that the UFS’s pecan-nut project – steered by Dr Gert Marais, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Plant Sciences – is associated with those pecans.

Main exporter
In an ever expanding and interconnected global economy, South Africa has joined the USA as main exporters of pecan nuts to China. We have several advantages; our seasons differ from that of the USA, and we have the benefit that we are harvesting and exporting pecan nuts at the time when they are most popular at Chinese festivals and events.

Although it takes a long time to grow pecan trees (seven to eight years before they start producing), the long wait has extensive benefits. Dr Marias explains: “Unlike other crops, you do not have to prepare the soil and plant new crops annually. Rather than re-investing, you only need to do proper maintenance. Once planted, the pecan trees can produce for generations to come. And the UFS is involved in ensuring that the pecan industry not only survives but thrives.”

Empowering farmers
As the pecan industry in South Africa grows, new challenges are identified. Some trees suffer from a condition called overall decline, others from scab, and some others are infested by combinations of fungi not found in other countries. Dr Marais and his team have filed several ‘first reports’ of combinations between pecans and pathogens, leading to opportunities for MSc research projects and making a difference in the industry.

Dr Marais undertakes six field trips per year to visit all the production areas in South Africa, share information at farmer’s days, arrange courses to ensure best practices with regard to pecan cultivation; students also use these visits to collect samples for their research. Due to the systemic collaboration between the private sector and the university, farmers are empowered to manage their pecan crops better, the university benefits from cutting-edge research, and South Africa becomes a stronger player in the international economy.

Opportunity is knocking. And the UFS is jumping.

News Archive

Eye tracker device a first in Africa
2013-07-31

 

 31 July 2013

Keeping an eye on empowerment

"If we can see what you see, we can think what you think."

Eye-tracking used to be one of those fabulous science-fiction inventions, along with Superman-like bionic ability. Could you really use the movement of your eyes to read people's minds? Or drive your car? Or transfix your enemy with a laser-beam?

Well, actually, yes, you can (apart, perhaps, from the laser beam… ). An eye tracker is not something from science fiction; it actually exists, and is widely used around the world for a number of purposes.

Simply put, an eye tracker is a device for measuring eye positions and eye movement. Its most obvious use is in marketing, to find out what people are looking at (when they see an advertisement, for instance, or when they are wandering along a supermarket aisle). The eye tracker measures where people look first, what attracts their attention, and what they look at the longest. It is used extensively in developed countries to predict consumer behaviour, based on what – literally – catches the eye.

On a more serious level, psychologists, therapists and educators can also use this device for a number of applications, such as analysis and education. And – most excitingly – eye tracking can be used by disabled people to use a computer and thereby operate a number of devices and machines. Impaired or disabled people can use eye tracking to get a whole new lease on life.

In South Africa and other developing countries, however, eye tracking is not widely used. Even though off-the-shelf webcams and open-source software can be obtained extremely cheaply, they are complex to use and the quality cannot be guaranteed. Specialist high-quality eye-tracking devices have to be imported, and they are extremely expensive – or rather – they used to be. Not anymore.

The Department of Computer Science and Informatics (CSI) at the University of the Free State has succeeded in developing a high-quality eye tracker at a fraction of the cost of the imported devices. Along with the hardware, the department has also developed specialised software for a number of applications. These would be useful for graphic designers, marketers, analysts, cognitive psychologists, language specialists, ophthalmologists, radiographers, occupational and speech therapists, and people with disabilities. In the not-too-distant future, even fleet owners and drivers would be able to use this technology.

"The research team at CSI has many years of eye-tracking experience," says team leader Prof Pieter Blignaut, "both with the technical aspect as well as the practical aspect. We also provide a multi-dimensional service to clients that includes the equipment, training and support. We even provide feedback to users.

"We have a basic desktop model available that can be used for research, and can be adapted so that people can interact with a computer. It will be possible in future to design a device that would be able to operate a wheelchair. We are working on a model incorporated into a pair of glasses which will provide gaze analysis for people in their natural surroundings, for instance when driving a vehicle.

"Up till now, the imported models have been too expensive," he continues. "But with our system, the technology is now within reach for anyone who needs it. This could lead to economic expansion and job creation."

The University of the Free State is the first manufacturer of eye-tracking devices in Africa, and Blignaut hopes that the project will contribute to nation-building and empowerment.

"The biggest advantage is that we now have a local manufacturer providing a quality product with local training and support."

In an eye-tracking device, a tiny infra-red light shines on the eye and causes a reflection which is picked up by a high-resolution camera. Every eye movement causes a change in the reflection, which is then mapped. Infra-red light is not harmful to the eye and is not even noticed. Eye movement is then completely natural.

Based on eye movements, a researcher can study cognitive patterns, driver behaviour, attention spans, even thinking patterns. A disabled person could use their eye-movements to interact with a computer, with future technology (still in development) that would enable that computer to control a wheelchair or operate machinery.

The UFS recently initiated the foundation of an eye-tracking interest group for South Africa (ETSA) and sponsor a biennial-eye tracking conference. Their website can be found at www.eyetrackingsa.co.za.

“Eye tracking is an amazing tool for empowerment and development in Africa, “ says Blignaut, “but it is not used as much as it should be, because it is seen as too expensive. We are trying to bring this technology within the reach of anyone and everyone who needs it.”

Issued by: Lacea Loader
Director: Strategic Communication

Telephone: +27 (0) 51 401 2584
Cell: +27 (0) 83 645 2454
E-mail: news@ufs.ac.za
Fax: +27 (0) 51 444 6393

We use cookies to make interactions with our websites and services easy and meaningful. To better understand how they are used, read more about the UFS cookie policy. By continuing to use this site you are giving us your consent to do this.

Accept