Gaming and even regular user interaction on computers have largely remained unchanged for the last 20 years. Take one display and add a keyboard, mouse or a trackpad and call it a day. Sure, sensitivity and trackpad gestures have added a little, but it's all just riffing on the same tune.
Tobii Tech, however, wants to change all of that. No, they don't want you to give up your favorite keyboard or high-end laser mouse, but they do want you to consider just using your eyes.
Yes, your gaze, literally one of the most fundamental things we all do can now be used to control your PC. This technology is not something coming "later this year" like so many vaporware products we see at CES but it is ready now. We're going to show you how it works and why it may be the coolest thing at CES.
Watch our video walkthrough of the Tobii EyeX to see eye-tracking on a PC with Windows 10.
Hello, why eye tracking?
Here at CES 2016 we were lucky enough to sit down with the president of Tobii Tech, Oscar Werner, for a hands-on demo as well as a discussion of the technology, their plans, and long-term goals.
The immediate question you may have is why even bother? As it turns out, there is a long history of eye tracking technology used in academic research (I used to use it for reading studies, for instance), but now the technology is being developed to a level where it can be commercialized and mass produced.
And it's not expensive either. The Tobii EyeX is just $139.
Besides being an eye tracking camera, it can be used with Microsoft's Windows Hello too for unlocking your PC just be looking at it. That makes it one of the first readily available options for people who want Hello on their home PC without buying a new display or computer.
But there are some other real-world uses for EyeX right now:
- Gaming including using your glance to target objects
- Controlling mouse cursor movement in Windows 10 or Alt-Tab selection
- Dim Screen: The eye tracker knows if you are looking at the screen or not. When you look away, the device automatically dims the screen - saving power and giving privacy.
- Stay awake: Imagine leaving your laptop idle while being in a meeting. Today's devices can't anticipate when you would like to perform an action. With Tobii eye tracking, devices can understand that you are in front of the computer and will stay awake until you step away from it.
Like many technologies, EyeX is considered an emerging experience. That means drivers, features, and abilities are not only constantly evolving, but you the end user can influence the technology. Tobii Tech is very interested in getting this technology into people's hands to let them shape where it goes with OS and gaming integration.
Currently, Tobii EyeX supports over 30 gaming titles (you can see them here including official support from Ubisoft for Assassin's Creed: Syndicate and user mods for others like Grand Theft Auto V.
The company expects to have 100 titles in the coming months and partnerships with MSI including direct integration of the EyeX technology in MSI's new GT72 Dominator Pro Tobii gaming laptop, suggests that companies are taking notice. Werner informs us that they have had interest from a few companies about using their hardware in future laptops and PCs.
Usage of the technology varies. In Grand Theft Auto V a user can just use their glance to target enemies. The player looks where they want to shoot and simply presses the RT button to fire with no need to use the scene changer joystick for aiming. Likewise, you can even do this while driving any vehicle in GTAV, which means you can be driving in one direction, but shooting at the same time in another.
In a game like Assassin's Creed: Syndicate the eye tracking puts a reticle on objects that you can immediately repel to using your grappling hook. Once gain, no more aiming. You can also auto-tag enemies who for taking out when you are positioned.
Finally, in something like Microsoft Flight Simulator players get a more immersive experience:
The opportunities here are truly limitless and since EyeX does not replace current input methods, but merely augments them, there are no downsides with the technology.
How is it?
The EyeX device is like a long stick with multiple cameras and a mini USB plug. The kit comes with two magnetic mounts so that you can position it at the bottom of your PC display. Since there are two, you can swap it in and out of multiple computers. The magnet simply keeps it attached to the screen and the USB cable powers it.
Besides installing the PC drivers using EyeX is a Plug-n-Play experience.
The issue with new technology especially ones that alter user input strategies is the learning curve aka re-training and breaking old habits. Xbox owners have had this experience when using Kinect for instance.
Luckily, using Tobii EyeX is very straightforward. For the first time user, a calibration program is run to get the system in line with the user's gaze. From there it was more about trusting the system that it was going to work each time. That part may take a little while to adjust too resulting in a slight hesitation before you inmate the action with your controller, mouse, or keyboard. But once you let yourself go, so to speak, EyeX just works.
The reason for the ease is the technology only extends what is already a natural function: looking at an object of interest. There is nothing else more basic in gaming or using a computer.
Although the current EyeX camera can be used on any laptop or PC, the company is already readying the next generation of the device on their IS4 Platform. The newer one is even smaller and it has a proprietary chip on board to handle the eye tracker processing. Much like how a dedicated GPU offloads graphics duties from the main CPU, this new eye-tracking chip – a first of its kind – means your PC will have even less to do when using the hardware.
The reduced footprint of the next generation tracker also means that the technology can be integrated into laptops smaller than 17-inch gaming ones. We saw a prototype for an Ultrabook with the gear built right into the display hinge adding a barely noticeable bump. Any PC manufacturer can use Tobii's technology if they want it.
And yes, if you thought that someday having eye tracking on your phone would be great Tobii's Werner is already ahead of you.
The road ahead
Needless to say, I was very impressed with the Tobii EyeX and the small Swedish company who have built this all on their own. It's not a prototype, but something you can buy right now (we have one in the house for even more demos in the coming weeks). The company is looking for user feedback to take the technology even further and partnerships with game developers and hardware manufacturers to make the technology readily available to the masses.
To editorialize a bit, I think that eye tracking could be the next big thing in PCs. Today, we are already just getting used to Intel's RealSense 3D cameras and Windows Hello. The Tobii EyeX does Windows Hello too, but for gamers and regular users, is much more useful for everyday tasks than just 3D scanning.
My hope is companies like Microsoft and others take notice of Tobii here at CES. Imagine for a second a Surface that not only unlocks your computer but one that dims the display when you are not looking at it (or turns it back on when you do). How about saving your index finger from slowly moving the mouse cursor around the screen all day and instead cut that by ¾ since you can just navigate with your peepers?
Those are jaw-dropping technologies, and you can have it right now. Will the rest of the industry get on board? We'll have to wait and see, but I'm hopeful. Folks, this stuff, is great.
Windows Central will be doing a lot more with Tobii in the coming weeks including creating user-forums, some contests, and regular coverage of EyeX for gamers and more. Let us know what you think in comments!_
Where to buy
If you are interested in Tobii EyeX, you can find more information from their website here including ordering a unit directly from the company for $139 (+$25 for shipping).
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Daniel Rubino is the Editor-in-chief of Windows Central, head reviewer, podcast co-host, and analyst. He has been covering Microsoft since 2007 when this site was called WMExperts (and later Windows Phone Central). His interests include Windows, laptops, next-gen computing, and for some reason, watches. Before all this tech stuff, he worked on a Ph.D. in linguistics, watched people sleep (for medical purposes!), and ran the projectors at movie theaters because it was fun.