San Francisco – The next big leap for virtual and augmented reality headsets is likely to be eye-tracking, where headset-mounted laser beams aimed at eyeballs turn your peepers into a mouse.
A number of startups are working on this tech, with an aim to convince VR gear manufacturers such as Oculus Rift and HTC Vive to incorporate the feature in a next generation device. They include SMI, Percept, Eyematic, Fove and Eyefluence, which recently allowed USA Today to demo its eye-tracking tech.
“Eye-tracking is almost guaranteed to be in second-generation VR headsets,” says Will Mason, cofounder of virtual reality media company UploadVR. “It’s an incredibly important piece of the VR puzzle.”
At present, making selections in VR or AR environments typically involve moving the head so that your gaze lands on a clickable icon, and then either pressing a handheld remote or, in the case of Microsoft’s HoloLens or Meta 2, reaching out with your hand to make a selection by interacting with a hologram.
As shown in Eyefluence’s demonstration, all of that is accomplished by simply casting your eyes on a given icon and then activating it with another glance.
“The idea here is that anything you do with your finger on a smartphone you can do with your eyes in VR or AR,” says Eyefluence CEO Jim Marggraff, who cofounded the Milpitas, Calif-based company in 2013 with another entrepreneur, David Stiehr.
“Computers made a big leap when they went from punchcards to a keyboard, and then another from a keyboard to a mouse,” says Marggraff, who invented the kid-focused LeapFrog LeapPad device. “We want to again change the way we interface with data.”
Eye Tech Not Due for Years
As exciting as this may sound, the mainstreaming of eye-tracking technology is still a ways off. Eyefluence execs say that although they are in discussions with a variety of headset makers, their tech isn’t likely to debut until 2017. Other companies remain largely in R&D mode, and Fove has a waitlist for its headset’s Kickstarter campaign.
The challenges for eye-tracking are both technological and financial. Creating hardware that consistently locks onto an infinite variety of eyeballs presents one hurdle, while doing so with gear that is light and consumes little power is another.
And while a number of companies in the space have managed to land funding – Eyefluence has raised $21.6 million in two rounds led by Intel Capital and Motorola Solutions – some tech-centric VCs are sitting on the sidelines while they wait for the technology to mature and for headset makers to make their moves.
“What eye-tracking will do will be powerful, but I’m not sure how valuable it will be from an investment standpoint,” says Kobie Fuller of Accel Partners. “Is there a multi-billion-dollar eye-tracking company out there? I don’t know.”
Among the unknowns: whether the tech will be disseminated through a licensed model or if existing headset companies will develop it on their own.
Still, once deployed eye-tracking has the potential to revolutionize the VR and AR experience, Fuller expects.
Specifically, eye-tracking will “greatly enhance interpersonal connections” in VR, he says, by applying realistic eye movements to avatars.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who presciently bought Oculus for $2 billion, is banking on VR taking social interactions to a new level.
“The most exciting thing about eye-tracking is getting rid of that ‘uncanny valley’ (where disbelief sets in) when it comes to interacting through avatars,” says Fuller.
Less Computing Power
There are a few other ways in which successful eye-tracking tech could revolutionize AR and VR beyond just making such worlds easy to navigate without joysticks, remotes or hand gestures.
First, by tracking the eyes, such tech can telegraph to the VR device’s graphics processing unit, or GPU, that it needs to render only the images where the eyes are looking at that moment.
That means less computing power would be needed. Currently, a $700 Oculus headset requires a powerful computer to render its images. Oculus’s developer kit with a suitable computer costs $2,000. “If you can save on rendering power, that could significantly lower the barrier to entry into this market for consumers,” says UploadVR’s Mason.
And second, by not just tracking the eyeball but also potentially analyzing a person’s mood and logging in details about their gaze, AR/VR headsets are in a position to deliver targeted content as well as give third-party observers insights into the wearer’s state of mind and situational awareness.
The former use case would appeal to in-VR advertisers, while the latter would come in handy for first responders.
“Police and paramedics are looking for an eyes-up, hands-free paradigm, and eye-tracking can bring that,” says Paul Steinberg, chief technology officer at Motorola Solutions, an investor in Eyefluence.
Steinberg sketches out a scene from what could be the near future.
A police officer on patrol has suddenly unholstered his gun. Via his augmented reality glasses with eye-tracking, colleagues at headquarters are instantly fed information about his stress level through pupil dilation information.
They can then both advise the officer through a radio as well as activate body cameras and other tech that he might have neglected to turn on in his stressed state. What’s more, another officer on the scene can instantly scan through a variety of command center video and data feeds through an AR headset, flipping through the options by simply looking at each one.
“We would have to work with our (first responder) customers to train them how to use this sort of tech of course, but the potential is there,” says Steinberg. “But we’re not months away, we’re more than that.”
Demo Shows Off Ease of Use
An Eyefluence indicates that eye-tracking technology isn’t a half-baked dream.
Navigating between a dozen tiles inside a first-generation Oculus headset proves as easy as shifting your gaze between them. Making selections – the equivalent of clicking on a mouse – is also equally intuitive. At no time does the head need to move, and hands remain at your side.
After about 10 minutes in the demo, it feels antiquated to pop on a VR headset and grab a remote to click through choices selected with head movements.
Marggraff says Eyefluence’s technical challenges included making technology that could respond in low and bright light, accounting for different size pupils and ensuring that power consumption is minimal.
But, he adds, his team remains convinced of the inevitability of its product: “Just like when we started tapping and swiping on our phones, we’re going to eventually need a better interface for AR and VR.”