AR and VR are gearing up for a giant leap forward thanks to advancements in eye-tracking technology.
The industry has been experiencing a boom in recent years with hundreds of startups and heavy investment from tech giants including Google, Apple, Samsung, and Facebook. Despite all the activity, AR/VR hardware remains relatively crude. Most interfaces take cues from head movement and manual inputs. Graphics often appear artificial, and can be harsh on the eyes due to low resolution and slow frame rates.
Eye-tracking systems, which monitor eye movements in real time, promise to change this.
Historically, the technology has been used to collect information for scientific and business applications, such as market research and medical diagnostics. Because humans primarily use vision to navigate their environment, the eyes can reveal volumes about what’s happening in the mind. They can tell a device what the user is focusing on and how they’re responding. In computing, eye tracking helps lay the groundwork for a revolution in human-to-machine relationships by allowing the control centers to “talk” to each other without manual inputs, such as buttons, controllers, or a mouse. A smartphone or laptop monitor that responds to eye movement and verbal commands, for example, is working more closely with the human mind than the device that requires touch or mouse and keyboard. The evolution of Internet of Things (IoT), including driverless cars and smart appliances, relies on these types of relationships.
Thanks to tiny, powerful components, including compact infrared light emitting diodes (IRED), companies are finally integrating eye tracking sensors in their products. When done well, these systems could enable virtual displays that respond to natural, even subconscious, cues from the user. It could be the beginning of a truly immersive virtual experience.
Industry Is Changing
In January of 2017, FOVE, a Japanese VR startup, released the first eye-tracking VR headset.
Meanwhile, a host of mid-to-high-end AR/VR hardware companies have been working to add some form of eye tracking to existing headsets, as well as integrated solutions in the future. Tobii and other eye tracking developers have begun licensing their technology for consumer AR/VR products while tech giants like Google and Facebook have absorbed some of the most promising startups in the space.
Growing enthusiasm for consumer VR/AR is having a profound impact on the market. Already, nine percent of Internet-connected household in the U.S. expect to purchase a VR headset in the next year, while 24 million households worldwide will do so by the end of 2017, according to Parks and Associates. UBI Research expects total shipments to exceed 65 million units by 2021 and International Data Corporation (IDC) forecasts a five-year compound annual growth rate of 108.3% for AR/VR headsets.
In China alone, the consumer VR/AR market could reach $8.5 billion in the next four years, reports Bloomberg Technology. Meanwhile, Market Watch believes the eye tracking market will reach $1.4B by 2023 due, in part, to its role in VR/AR products.
How Eye Tracking Supports Immersion
Even for those in the military who aren’t on the frontlines, Adroit offers solutions. Location-based intelligence is still an intricate part of military strategy. Countries and regions of all shapes and sizes that can be incredibly hard to distinguish with just the naked eye. Reviewing a map with Adroit however, is a complete game changer.
Users could have the ability to click on a certain land mass and have it place them in that location as if they were actually there. They could even gesture towards a location and have it bring up information like the population of a city or number of troops that are currently on the ground. Similar to a real map, virtual pins could be placed across important locations and then have them sent to colleagues — all without having to sit behind a computer.
Eye Tracking & Innovation
The development of high-impact technologies tends to speed up after a major breakthrough. Now that FOVE has released the first eye-tracking VR headset, we might expect these functionalities will soon come standard in a range of products—from affordable smartphone headsets to high-end systems.
“The view that eye tracking will be a key part of second generation headsets is shared by a large number of VR HMD vendors,” Tobii Business Unit President Oscar Werner explained to TechCrunch. “This drives technology development and innovation.”
As a point of reference, Tobii’s sales nearly doubled from 2014 to 2016, shortly after the company began investing in VR technology.
To take full advantage of the changing market, hardware developers will need to integrate eye-tracking systems capable of keeping up with the human eye. The technology works by beaming invisible infrared (IR) light into the cornea. The light passes through the pupil undetected and reflects off the iris, revealing the edge of the pupil to camera sensors.
An eye twitch, known as saccades, is one of the fastest movements in the human body–the eye can shift 0.9-degrees/millisecond and initiate movement in 200 ms. The eye tracking systems employed in AR/VR must match this pace, especially for foveated rendering functionalities where the image changes with each eye movement. In addition to powerful memory cards and tiny, accurate sensors, eye tracking requires an efficient, lightweight source of IR light. For this purpose, Osram Opto Semiconductors developed Firefly FH 4055, an IRED designed for eye tracking at near range (less than 5cm between the eye and the sensor). Firefly SFH 4055 is angled for side installation, maximum reflection, and minimal energy consumption.
Eye tracking affords remarkable opportunity to AR/VR developers: A chance to build machines capable of interacting with the human mind. As the technology advances, ultra-compact IR emitters play a critical role in hardware innovation.