Tobii Eye-Tracking Tech Lets You Navigate Games with Your Eyes

In the 2013 sci-fi movie "Ender's Game," the main characters can control and deploy armies with just their eyes.  Stockholm, Sweden-based company Tobii Technology is well on its way to making that science fiction a science fact.

With Tobii's EyeX developer kits going out this month and the first Tobii-powered consumer hardware hitting shelves this summer, the company is focusing on attracting new game developers to design games compatible with its eye-tracking technology.

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We saw Tobii at the Game Developers' Convention in San Francisco, where the company was showing off its new technology. One of the demos on display was "Son of Nor," an in-development indie game for PCs by Austria-based Stillalive Studios.

In this fantasy game, players press the left mouse button to levitate objects or absorb elemental power such as fire or wind. Pressing the right button blasts the objects or power at a target. Without Tobii, aiming these powers is done via a reticule at the center of the screen, as with most games. But when Tobii is enabled and correctly calibrated, you can pick up and throw objects anywhere on the screen just by looking at them and pressing the appropriate mouse button.

We tried this a few times in the "Son of Nor" demo we played, and sometimes got mixed results. When it came to picking up objects, such as rocks or an inexplicably large carrot, we found that sometimes we had to look just above the object in order to grab it. Otherwise, we merely altered the sand in front of the object. Once we were actually holding an object or power, aiming the attack with our eyes was much easier.

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When multiple enemies appeared in the demo, performing quick attacks proved too difficult, and we quickly died. However, this could easily be our own fault instead of Tobii's.

After "Son of Nor" we played the demo that Tobii Technology shows to developers in order to convince them to code Tobii-compatible games. This consisted of a few quick examples of how Tobii could be used, not in the game's core mechanics, as with "Son of Nor," but as an added feature.

For example, one scenario showed a murder mystery scene with three suspects standing around it. The longer you look at an individual suspect the more their expressions will change, as if reacting to your inquisitive stare. Finally, one of them will betray an obviously guilty expression, thus revealing himself to be the culprit.

In another part of the demo, which showed how Tobii could make horror games scarier, the screen was entirely black except for a fist-sized circle, through which we could glimpse the interior of a haunted house. This circle is akin to the beam of a flashlight, and moved around the screen as we moved our eyes, simulating how a person in a dark room would scan the surroundings.

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Jill Scharr is a creative writer and narrative designer in the videogame industry. She's currently Project Lead Writer at the games studio Harebrained Schemes, and has also worked at Bungie. Prior to that she worked as a Staff Writer for Tom's Guide, covering video games, online security, 3D printing and tech innovation among many subjects.