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Eye tracking evolution: A look at Tobii’s slim new IS-2, glasses-free 3D gaming, and the future

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Tobii has been in the eye tracking business for years now, but people are only starting to notice. At CES, the company attracted a lot of attention with its new eye-controlled ‘Gaze’ interface for Windows 8. Now, just a month and a half later, it has made two more big leaps forward: integration with glasses-free 3D technology and the release of a new eye tracker that’s 75-percent smaller than its previous model. 

Next-gen eye tracker

About a year ago, we got our first look at Tobii’s first eye tracking laptop, built by Lenovo. In that piece, we speculated on many cool ways that eye tracking could be used to enhance PCs. These days, Tobii is still aiming at the PC, but it also has bigger targets. We spoke with Barbara Barclay, general manager of Tobii’s US division, who told us a bit about the new Tobii IS-2 Eye Tracker, which is almost as small as a pen. The new unit is 75-percent smaller than previous models, uses 40-percent less power, and costs less. Thanks to improvements in processing, it can now be integrated rather seamlessly into products of all sorts.

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Sadly, though an eye tracker of this size may have fit into a laptop computer two years ago, with the entire industry chasing Apple and attempting to make the thinnest devices possible, Tobii is still likely a few years off from its eye tracker appearing in commercial laptops you or I might buy at the store, said Barclay, but she was quick to point out that the company is making steady progress toward this goal. But something like an all-in-one desktop computer could now be possible without too much hassle.

Tobii is working outside of the PC industry as well. Barclay wasn’t specific, but said that she is working with a number of business and government clients to possibly integrate eye tracking into some surprising new places. The technology could soon be applied to jobs where quick multitasking is essential. One example given was a control room operator in a Nuclear plant, or other control rooms where one person needs to do many things at once and needs quick response time. The IS-2 scans your eyes more than 30 times per second. If you’re “doing a professional task or something where your hands are otherwise occupied, or if you need a third hand” eye tracking may be the solution. 

big-brother-at&t-tracking-gpsMore interesting, and a bit scary, is the idea of eye tracking being used to monitor if you’re concentrating on your job or not. While I immediately pictured a future where all employers monitor their staff in a Big Brother-ish way, Barclay says that the companies they’re working with may use the technology for safety reasons. While it sounds invasive if your boss is looking to see if you’re paying attention, in a high-risk job like baggage scanning or aircraft piloting, knowing that an employee is able to pay attention could save lives. If a pilot isn’t able to concentrate, people could die. There are a number of careers where concentration is vital to public safety.

Other possibilities for these newer, smaller eye trackers: vehicle navigation, kitchens, you name it. The Tobii SDK is free for any software or hardware developers to download and getting a unit to try out won’t break the bank, Barclay tells us. 

Glasses-free 3D

The popularity of 3D glasses is waning, but there is definitely demand for glasses-free 3D that works. Today, Tobii also announced that it has partnered with SeeFront to develop technology that accurately produces glasses-free 3D effects no matter what angle or distance you are from the monitor. Because Tobii’s eye tracker can detect the exact distance your eyes are from the screen and their angle, it allows a computer to adjust the 3D effect to match where you are looking at the screen from.

Confused? Here’s how it currently works: In the Nintendo 3DS and other glasses-free 3D devices, you don’t have to wear any headgear to see 3D, but you do have to stare at the screen from straight on and a somewhat fixed distance. This is because the device doesn’t know where you are sitting and is only broadcast it’s 3D in one direction at a time. With eye tracking, this problem is resolved because the screen can track your eyes and know exactly how far away from the screen you are and from what angle, allowing it to direct the 3D effect in your direction.

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There are limitations. Currently, Tobii’s technology can’t be used at long distances, so integrating it into a television would be difficult. On top of that, it can only track one set of eyes at once, so it will be a while before a group can enjoy glasses-free 3D together. 

There aren’t any announced consumer products that will use this technology yet, but the company has already integrated 3D into its EyeAsteroids arcade game, which we played late last November. 

Touch and look

It will still be a while before these technologies take off, if they do at all, but it’s fun to see companies like Tobii pushing the limits and trying new things with eye control. Barbara Barclay and others at Tobii see themselves as introducing a completely new type of interaction and realize it will take a while. But their newest analogy is a pretty good one: eye control, they say, is a lot like touch control was some years back. It has clear benefits and potential, but it takes time for consumers to realize just how great it could be. Now, if only Tobii could convince Apple to add eye control to its next Macbook…that would speed things right along.