Tobii Prepares Cheap Eye Controller for PCs, May Ruin First-Person Shooters

The company's first mass market eye tracker could cost around $100.

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A concept laptop, shown earlier this year, has Tobii eye tracking built in. A standalone device will come first, in early 2014.

Being able to control a computer with your eyes sounds like the stuff of sci-fi, but it’s coming to mainstream users sooner than you think.

Tobii Technology, whose impressive eye control tech once cost thousands of dollars, is preparing a much cheaper version that will land on store shelves early next year, toward the end of the first quarter or beginning of the second quarter. Instead of using its own brand name, Tobii will partner with a major device manufacturer, and the product will be similar in price to a Leap Motion ($80) or a Kinect ($100).

Carl Korobkin, Tobii’s vice president of OEM solutions, laid out Tobii’s roadmap in an interview last week. While Korobkin didn’t give away any specific product details, he made it clear that the standalone device will be affordable for the mass market, and said we could expect to hear more around the CES trade show in January.

“It’s absolutely a price where you’ll see it on the endcap and go, ‘Oh my god, whoa, it’s the coolest thing,'” Korobkin said. “You’ll just pick it up. You’re not going to think twice about the price.”

Having sampled Tobii’s technology at CES in years past, I want to believe he’s right. Eye tracking doesn’t sound practical or essential until you use it and realize it’s faster and more natural than a mouse or trackpad.

In the PC demos I’ve tried, you use your eyes to control where your cursor goes, but you still use a button on your mouse or keyboard to click on things. Eye tracking simply speeds up the process; instead of dragging your mouse to where you want to click, you just look at the target and press a button, and the cursor instantly zips over.┬áTobii has designed some other system-level uses as well, such as scrolling through web pages as your eyes move downward, and zooming into a map or photo where your eyes are focused. Developers will be able to create applications that extend the use of eye tracking even further.

Eye tracking works by sending out near-infrared light that creates a reflection pattern on the eyes. The eye tracker then uses image sensors and processing to detect where the eyes are looking. Korobkin claimed that the standalone product won’t cause a major drain on battery life, and could provide its own power efficiency by dimming or turning off the screen when the user looks away.

Who’s it for, aside from early adopters in general? Korobkin thinks eye tracking will be of use to PC gamers at first. He described a scenario where a Starcraft 2 player could open the game’s mini-map and quickly move between areas without dragging the mouse cursor.

“If you play Starcraft at all, it’s a lot of twitch factor,” Korobkin said. “So you’re navigating through the landscape with just machine-gun, rapid-fire decisions.”

Eye tracking could also enable new kinds of games. As an example, Korobkin talked about a detective-type game where you’re investigating a crime, and people at the scene will react differently based on how you make eye contact.

I wondered, though, if eye tracking would ruin competitive first person shooters, where popping off headshots would theoretically be as easy as looking at the target. Korobkin seemed amused by the possibility, though he didn’t have a solution for it. “The thing about an eye tracker is some people call it a mind reader,” he said. (Hopefully it’s something that game developers could detect and block in order to keep the playing field level.)

Beyond gaming, Tobii is aiming its eye tracking at productivity software. Korobkin said the company is working with makers of “heavy market share” desktop programs, and while he wouldn’t name names, he mentioned computer-aided design software as one possibility. I’m also dreaming of a Photoshop plugin that lets you switch between brushes or colors without moving your cursor or stylus.

Although Tobii’s first consumer hardware will be a standalone device, the company is planning on laptop integration later in 2014. Korobkin hopes that eye tracking will eventually become a standard feature that’s built into the price of the laptop. “It’s just like today, you don’t pay for a web camera,” he said.

In the future, Tobii wants to get its technology into Android devices and automobiles, and the company has flirted with the idea of eye tracking in wearable devices like Google Glass.

For now, Tobii just needs to get its technology out to the mass market. The closest Tobii comes right now is a developer unit called Rex, which cost $1,000. Korobkin said this price is “artificially set” at a higher price because of the developer kit and support costs.

“We can sell it for one tenth of that,” he said.