There's a saying, "the eyes are the windows to the soul." But thanks to Tobii, they're becoming so much more. During a recent meeting with the eye-tracking company, I learned about the the latest advances in the technology, which will enable even more immersive interaction with game characters, and potentially change the way we play in virtual reality.
For those unfamiliar with the company or the tech, Tobii has become synonymous with the glossy black bar making its way onto an increasing amount of gaming laptops. A series of mini-projectors create a pattern of light on the eyes, which the company calls Near Infrared. Sensors continuously scan the eyes looking for the Near Infrared pattern, and relays that information back to an algorithm to determine where your eyes are looking.
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To date, Tobii's technology has been used in certain games, such as Deux Ex: Machina Divided, to allow you to control the camera position with your eyes and set up your aim. During my demo, I saw the next stage of eye-tracking tech -- Awareness. Typically, when you're playing a game, the non-playable characters (NPCs) typically aren't making eye-contact with you, even if you're looking or talking to them. Awareness changes all that by causing NPCs to look in your direction as soon as your gaze settles on them.
The eye-tracking tech allows for immediate reaction from NPCs, as I learned during a demo title called Reflections. Although it seems like such a small thing, having other characters in the game world actually acknowledge really heightens the immersion factor, especially in dialogue scenes.
But Tobii isn't stopping with traditional gaming. The company also has its eyes on the burgeoning virtual reality market, embedding its sensors into a pair of HTC Vive VR goggles.If Tobii can bring its camera and aim controls to virtual reality titles, it will make things a lot easier VR players. Instead of having to turn your entire body to look at another part of the environment, you could just look around as you would normally. Using your eyes to aim could also cut down on any potential nausea.
Once I put the headset on, I saw a prompt instructing me to get position the device until it could track my eyes successfully (designated by the words awesome under each eye). From there, it was time to put this new tech to the test.
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A demo soon started where I had to throw rocks to try to knock over bottles placed on tree stumps. On my first few attempts, virtual life directly mimicked the real one with my throws coming up embarrassingly short. Then I was told to pick up the pink "magic" rocks laying around the environment, look where I wanted to throw and let 'er rip. I looked at the bottle on the stump farthest away from me and chucked the pastel pebble. The pink projectile rocketed towards its target and connected with a satisfying plunk. After that, I was launching rocks with the precision of Tom Seaver. Hell, I even started putting some force behind my throws.
Unfortunately, it's probably going to be awhile before we consumers see this technology implemented in the Vive or any other headset. The aftermarket kit is priced at $3,000 and currently only being marketed to developers. Here's hoping that Tobii can forge a relationship with Oculus or HTC so the technology can get to the masses.
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Sherri L. Smith has been cranking out product reviews for Laptopmag.com since 2011. In that time, she's reviewed more than her share of laptops, tablets, smartphones and everything in between. The resident gamer and audio junkie, Sherri was previously a managing editor for Black Web 2.0 and contributed to BET.Com and Popgadget.