The Tobii Eye Tracker 4C arrived in our offices inside of a long, slim box. It contained a padded enclosure for the eye tracker, a slip of manufacturer information, and a narrow band illustrating a step-by-step guide on how to attach the device to your laptop or desktop monitor. It was a mystery in its own way: What was it for? What could it do? None of these questions were answered within the box or on its exterior.
The device itself is an eye tracker. It attaches to your monitor and bounces lasers off your eyes to determine what you’re looking at on your computer screen. This model is designed to add an additional layer of immersion to your gaming experiences — but can it change the way you play games?
Tricky setup, and it’s permanent
Inside the box are two slivers of metal. These are the mounts, to be permanently affixed to your monitor or laptop. Tobii’s packaging strongly warns that these mounts shouldn’t be messed with after installation, and we found that to be the case. Removing the mount will do one of two things — cause permanent damage to your monitor or laptop, or cause permanent damage to the mount.
We decided to give it a go anyway, just to see how difficult taking the darn thing off is. Removing it from a laptop monitor required finesse, a credit card, and a lot of patience. We did remove it successfully, after slicing through the adhesive with a narrow strip of plastic. The laptop was thankfully unharmed, but the adhesive on the back of the mount was badly mangled and no longer useful.
Tobii is upfront about the problem, but it’s still a problem. What happens if you switch monitors, or your laptop? You’ll have to do the installation all over again, and your old device will be stuck with a now useless mount.
That major annoyance aside, installation was smooth. After installing the appropriate software, the eye tracker immediately sprang to life, its glowing eyes peering back at us from behind a pane of black plastic. It watched our every move, tracking our gaze across the screen as we followed its calibration instructions.
After you enable it in Deus Ex’s options, the eye tracker seamlessly melts into the game experience.
First, the software tossed up four little blue dots, one at each edge of the screen. A prompt instructs users to stare at each one in turn until they burst under the intensity of your gaze. It’s a simple exercise, one that trains the eye tracker for your eyes – like saying “Hey Siri” or “Ok Google” a couple times to teach your phone how to recognize your voice.
A moment later, the calibration software catapults you into space, planting you in the cockpit of a small starship. This exercise is for the user’s benefit, to demonstrate how accurately the tracker can respond to even minute eye movements.
While you sit amid a simulated asteroid field, the Tobii Eye Tracker instructs you to target a cloud of oncoming asteroids and vaporize them before they strike your small, vulnerable ship. The reticle moves without any input other than your eyes. It’s a little disorienting at first – you have to fight the urge to reach for a mouse and the WASD keys.
Targeting each asteroid by looking at it, you can fire your lasers with the space bar. It’s a very simple demonstration, the kind of demo you’d get at a trade show or in an electronics store, but it’s a little intoxicating. By the time the calibration demo wrapped up, the Tobii Eye Tracker had us hooked. What else could this little thing do?
How it Works
The Tobii Eye Tracker 4C shoots lasers at your head until it learns where your eyes are. When it’s in use, your face is constantly bombarded with these little flashes of near-infrared light, which pick up the location of your eyes and direction of your gaze. It’s worth noting that the calibration process asks if you’re wearing glasses or contact lenses, to compensate for any obstacles the device might encounter. We tested it with eyeglasses, and it worked as well as it did without them.
The pulses of light, once recorded by the device, run through complex algorithms to calculate the location of your eyes and the direction of your gaze.
The Tobii 4C also supports head tracking, which it accomplishes via six near-infrared emitters in the center of the device. These work on the same principle as the other emitters which track your gaze, but these ones watch your every move. Unfortunately, other than Elite Dangerous and the demo software, it doesn’t appear that the feature has much support just yet.
Whether eye-tracking or head-tracking, the output of the entire system is translated through the included Tobii Eye Tracking software and turned into usable information for games, Windows, or other supported applications – of which there are precious few.
Quick as a flash, if your processor can handle it
The Tobii Eye Tracker software relies heavily on your CPU to handle the barrage of information pouring in through from the eye tracker itself, but it doesn’t take much of a toll on overall performance. In Windows, it’s almost imperceptible, though you might get a little extra lag here or there when you’ve got some serious multi-tasking going on.
That is, unless you turn on the “Gaze Trace” feature. Included in the Tobii software bundle, Gaze Trace illustrates where you’re looking with a transparent amorphous blob that moves with your eyeballs. It’s a helpful diagnostic tool if you’re having trouble getting the Tobii Eye Tracker set up, and it’s a great way to see just how quick, responsive and accurate the tracker is, but you will notice some performance loss.
With Gaze Trace on, we experienced serious keyboard lag and some other performance irregularities. Luckily, the feature is mostly intended for demonstration purposes and the graphical effect itself seems to be the culprit, not the eye tracking software.
The camera is hamstrung by the lack of broad support.
In gaming, the Tobii Eye Tracker 4C had a negligible impact on framerates. While measuring FPS in Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, there were no significant variations with the eye tracker enabled versus having it disconnected. Similarly, enabling different eye-tracking features in Deus Ex didn’t seem to have any effect on performance.
With Gaze Trace, though, we saw a sizable dip in FPS. We tested the eye tracker on a Dell Inspiron 7000, a budget gaming laptop, and it was able to run Deus Ex: Mankind Divided on mid-to-low settings with a fairly consistent 60 frames per second. But that dipped to 35 or 40 when Gaze Trace was enabled.
To be fair, Gaze Trace is unnecessary in games, and it’s mostly for demonstration purposes. So, if you do plan on using your eye tracker for gaming, make sure that feature is disabled.
Tobii turns your eyes into your best weapon
The Tobii website advertises only a small handful of games which support the eye tracker’s robust functionality, which includes Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, The Division, Elite Dangerous, and the upcoming Watch Dogs 2.
We tested the eye tracker in The Division, Elite Dangerous, and Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, and each one provided a unique take on the features the eye tracker brings to the table. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided by far boasts the most fully-featured integration, by rolling together several new feature sets, and improving on others already baked into the game itself.
After you enable it in the game’s options, the eye tracker seems to disappear. As soon as you step off the train in the first part of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, your HUD becomes transparent, responding only when you look at an area, allowing you to experience the game world with an unobstructed view. Your mini-map, your quick-bar, your augmentations — looking at each part of the screen brings it to life without a moment of hesitation or performance lag.
When you start walking around, you’ll notice your field of view shifts subtly when you move your eyes, panning your camera just a little here and there. When you take cover, you can look where you want to go, and the “change cover” target shifts accordingly.
The Tobii Eye Tracker 4C is even capable of discerning minute movements. It can tell when you’re looking at an object or an NPC, cycling between two objects in the game-world without any difficulty whatsoever. The selection reticle moves from one object to the next with ease, and it never once selected the wrong item or person. Wherever I was looking, the reticle moved in turn. It’s remarkably accurate.
These features are so intuitive, in fact, that it’s jarring when they’re gone. Playing through Deus Ex again without the eye tracker is, frankly, unpleasant. It feels like part of the game is missing – it’s like gaming in HD, then going back to standard definition.
That feeling also occurs any time Deus Ex doesn’t use the eye tracker when it could. When you’re hacking doors, or talking to NPCs, it feels like the eye tracker should be involved somehow – but it isn’t. The eye tracker performs so well that when it’s excluded from an aspect of the game where it seems like it should be integrated, it’s very noticeable.
In that way, the Tobii Eye Tracker 4C is a victim of its own success. It does its job so well that the narrow range of games that support its functionality appears even smaller than it is. We wanted more, but it just wasn’t there. That appears to be the biggest obstacle facing the Tobii Eye Tracker. It can only work if developers program for it, and most haven’t.
What else can it do?
One feature it does bring to the table, outside of games, is support for Windows Hello. The new security feature from Microsoft allows you to login with just your face, as long as you have compatible hardware. You just sit down in front of your computer, the camera sees your face, and you’re in.
The Tobii Eye Tracker 4C is even capable of discerning minute movements.
It’s easy, convenient, and a great addition to Windows 10. The only problem is that it’s not widely available. The new login feature has been mostly confined to the Microsoft Surface lineup, but with the Tobii Eye Tracker 4C, you too can login with just your face.
It’s a seamless experience. Once the Tobii 4C is attached and enabled, you just need to go into your Windows 10 settings and turn on Windows Hello. Windows will automatically detect the Tobii Eye Tracker as a Hello-compatible device, and begin setup – which involves analyzing your face for a few seconds while a ghostly infrared version of your face stares back at you. Vaguely unsettling, but quick and painless.
The Tobii Eye Tracker 4C is covered by a standard 12-month warranty covering manufacturer defects, but not much else.Our Take
In our time with the Tobii Eye Tracker 4C it became abundantly clear that this device is unique. By integrating seamless eye tracking into PC games, the Tobii 4C offers up a glimpse of what is possible with modern technology. But that glimpse isn’t worth the price.
Is there a better alternative?
The Tobii Eye Tracker 4C is a niche product in a niche market, and right now there aren’t many competitors. Most other eye trackers are focused on the accessibility market, and sell as part of complex systems for users who are unable to use more traditional input methods, like a mouse and keyboard.
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One potential alternative is the Steelseries Sentry. But despite a marginally lower price, around $140, it’s built on Tobii technology. But the Sentry is built for gaming streamers, rather than players, and its feature set is designed to help people control broadcasts through eye movement. Razer’s Stargazer, which is $150, has the same focus.
How long will it last?
The Tobii Eye Tracker 4C’s quality is impressive. Though it’s a complex array of cameras and sensors, it seems durable. It survived some rough commute treatment, being tossed in a bag with a laptop and jostled around, without any scuffs or wear.
When it comes to the shelf life of the technology itself, the Tobii Eye Tracker has a hazy future. Currently, it supports four current blockbuster games, with a fifth on the way, and a couple neat features in Windows. Whether we’ll get more than that is unclear.
Installation is also a concern. Because its permanent, you may run into trouble if you switch laptops or monitors – there’s just two mounts included. And while the mount is slim, it could damage whatever you attach it to if you ever try to remove it.
Should you buy it?
No. The Tobii Eye Tracker 4C retails for $150 and, all things considered, that’s a lot to spend for a peripheral that only supports a handful of games and Windows Hello. It’s likely that you’ll see more games support the eye tracker in the future, but right now the support just isn’t there.
The technology has a lot of promise, and the peripheral itself is superb. Until you try to remove it. Between the inability to remove the mounts without risking serious damage to your hardware, and the absence of broad support for the eye tracker’s features, it’s hard to recommend you buy the Tobii Eye Tracker 4C, unless you can get it on sale. Even then, make sure you invest in a craft scalpel.