I haven’t been this excited about new tech in a long time. But that’s bound to happen when you find yourself controlling a game as complex as Assassin’s Creed: Rogue using nothing more than your eyeballs.
My assassin is standing on a windswept beach. The view is a familiar one, an invisible camera floating behind him and just above his shoulder. Somewhere off in the distance are bad dudes that need to be stabbed, but the assassin I’m in control of is staring out to sea. My eyes drift off to the left edge of the screen and the camera rotates in response. It’s slow at first, a gentle pan that responds to the direction of my gaze. But as I reach the edge of the display the pan picks up speed, eventually whipping around to show me the dense jungle that hides my foes.
Later, I find myself perched on the edge of a cliff. Peering downward — again, using my eyes and not the control stick — the camera tilts to show a gang of armed ruffians waiting at the base of the cliff. They don’t know I’m there. I lock my eyes on one of them, centering the camera’s field of view on the fresh target, and press a button. My assassin leaps into action, soaring off the edge of the cliff as he plunges down to stab his unsuspecting target. I’ve played tons of Assassin’s Creed games before, but never like this. Never with a Sentry tracking my eyeballs.
The Sentry looks like a Wii sensor bar at first glance. It’s a bit bulkier, and it’s got three very obvious sensors on either end and in the middle. But much like Nintendo’s IR motion sensor, the long, thin device is meant to sit either above or below your display of choice. The Sentry is a collaborative effort, bringing together the gaming knowhow of peripheral and accessories maker SteelSeries with the robust eye-tracking technology that Tobii Technology’s been perfecting since its founding in 2001.
I’ve been fortunate to spend a fair bit of time chatting with Tobii and checking out the tech since 2015 dawned, and the company quietly attended CES in January. Much of the tech world is still holding its breath for virtual reality to shake out, and a sensor that tracks your eye movements isn’t as immediately sexy as the idea of plunging users into virtual landscapes. But the Sentry has one thing in common with nascent VR experiences: Sampling it just one time amounts to an eye-opening experience. No pun intended.
In our time meeting with Tobii at CES, we got a better sense of what the SteelSeries Sentry aims to be. It’s actually a three-pronged approach to usability. The most obvious is its potential as an input device. We already know that SteelSeries and Tobii are partnered with Ubisoft for Rogue, which will support Sentry eye-tracking when it comes to Windows on March 10. Other announcements are coming too. We should note that with the Sentry, your eyes don’t take complete control of a game, but they can complement existing gamepad or mouse/keyboard options.
Then there’s the analytics, which taps into Tobii’s background outside of games. The company’s eye-tracking technology already had a range of applications before the Sentry came along. It can be used to assist those with special needs. Or track eye movements in research settings. Tobii makes special glasses fitted with micro-sized versions of the sensors that power the Sentry. They capture live video of what the wearer sees and overlay the footage with indicators that show where the eyes are focused at any given moment.
Enter the Sentry’s Game Analyzer software. Whenever you play one of its supported games — only Dota 2 and StarCraft II for now, but more are coming — the app works in concert with Game Analyzer to not just record where your attention is going during a play session, but what that means in the context of the specific game. The software keeps track of how much time you spend staring at the minimap during a play session, for example. It collects all of this data and presents it with filterable graphs and charts, giving serious players a chance to develop a better sense of how they spend their time in-game.
The third prong of the Sentry’s featureset applies to streamers working in their broadcast setting. The same sensors that track your eye movements can be set up to spit out a visual overlay that a stream’s viewers can see. It’s nothing fancy; just a transparent white circle that moves around the field of view in response to the player’s eye movements. The Game Analyzer software handle metrics, but the streaming interface is a neat feature that gives viewers online a glimpse into a particular player’s moment-to-moment process.
Think about that for a second. We watch people play games all the time in this day and age. The popularity of platforms like Twitch makes it easy. But how many times have you watching a video of some pro Call of Duty player and wondered “How the hell do they do that?” The Sentry’s stream overlay doesn’t necessarily answer that question, but it brings you that much closer to understanding how the mind of a serious player processes information on a moment-to-moment basis.
There’s something really cool about that, I think. Complexity is a huge barrier to entry for a lot of would-be fans of video games these days. On some level, developing dexterity and muscle memory with popular gamepads is responsible. But the games themselves have so many different things going on, so many systems that need to be juggled and tracked in real time, that it’s daunting for someone who’s only ever known games like Tetris and Angry Birds. So I love the idea of a device that gives all comers a firsthand look into the mind of a player.
And that doesn’t even account for the Sentry’s usability as an input device. In the case of Rogue, it’s a substitute for the standard camera controls. Focus your attention on the edge of the screen, and the camera rotates in that direction. It’s not immediately intuitive if you’re used to playing on a twin-stick controller; inevitably, your right thumb drifts back to the stick to move the camera around. What I found after a brief session was that I’d use a little of both, peering around the environment with my eyes and using the stick more reflexively, typically in combat.
But I’ve been a regular gamer for most of my 37 years on this planet. I grew up using joysticks and mouse/keyboards to play games, at home and in the arcades. Playing most games at this point is reflexive for me. But I’ve also noticed that newcomers to games are often tripped up when it comes to navigating around a three-dimensional space. There’s a disconnect; they have a hard time grasping the fact that one stick controls their virtual person and the other, their virtual camera. I really dig how Sentry stands to ease that transition.
We’ll have a review unit in hand soon, so stay tuned for more detailed impressions after I’ve spent some quality time with it.