Tobii proves that eye tracking is VR’s next killer feature

Sunday

Next, I found myself sitting in a virtual loft playing an augmented reality game. On my left was Mars, while Earth was on my right. The goal was to launch rockets from Mars and make them hit alien ships floating around Earth. I could spin both planets, which changed the angle of the rockets and the ships, and I also had a button for turning Tobii’s tech on and off. Naturally, the game was much easier to play when I could just look at a planet and rotate it with the Vive controller’s touchpad. Doing that manually, by selecting a planet with the controller, was far less fluid and made the game nearly impossible to play.

I also played through a scenario similar to Star Trek Bridge Crew, which involved manipulating a daunting number of buttons and dials on a spaceship. If you’ve played that Star Trek VR game, you’d know that one tough part of it is making sure you hit the right button at the right time. With eye tracking in Tobii’s scenario, I only had to look at a button to select it. The company’s tracking technology did a solid job of choosing the right button most of the time, even though the demo had plenty of other things to select nearby.

In addition to simply making VR interaction more fluid, Tobii claims that eye tracking will also allow for more efficient foveated rendering. That’s a technique that makes your computer devote most of its graphics power to what you’re seeing, while keeping offscreen content at a lower quality. Typically, foveated rendering works across the entire screen, no matter where you’re technically looking. But with eye tracking, it can focus the best quality to what your eyes are actually pointed at, while slightly downgrading what’s around it. Tobii quietly enabled the feature during my last demo, and I was surprised that I didn’t even notice it in action. The big benefit? It could make it easier to run VR on slower systems.

While VR is the most immediate and obvious fit for Tobii, the company is still aiming to work with more PC manufacturers to build eye tracking into their laptops. Currently, more than 100 games support the technology as well. You can also expect to see Tobii’s eye tracking in even thinner laptops over the next few years. (Right now it’s mainly relegated to beefy gaming notebooks.) The company let me take a glimpse at its upcoming “IS5” sensor design, which is significantly smaller and slimmer than its current solution (above). In particular, the camera has been dramatically shrunken down.

Tobii’s CEO, Henrik Eskilsson, told us that eye tracking will eventually be viewed as a requirement for VR. And I’m inclined to believe him. Accurate eye tracking delivers a better sense of presence, which is really the ultimate goal for virtual reality. Trying Tobii’s technology for just 30 minutes has already ruined me for every VR headset without it. I’d call that a success.

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