Usually, we find just one or two things at CES every year that get us really, really stoked about the future. Last year it was Samsung's beautiful bendable displays, but this year, we were starting to worry that nothing would hit it out of the park. And then we tried Tobii's eye tracking computer interface system, and as Kevin so eloquently puts it: OMGWOW.
When you hear things like "eye tracking interface" you tend to think of some clunky and unresponsive system that's little more than a novelty. At least, that's what we think, but we were totally, completely 100% dead wrong. Tobii, a company we'd barely heard of before this year save for here and there, has done something amazing and made our fantasies come true. Are we gushing? Yeah, probably, but stick with us.
How It Works
Tobii's system works using an infrared tracking camera along with an infrared illuminator, which you can see in the picture above. The cameras pinpoint the exact location of your pupils, and we mean exact: the system is absolutely dead-nuts accurate, for all practical purposes able to completely replace a mouse or trackpad. There's a little bit of initial calibration involved (maybe 10 seconds of just looking at different points on the screen), but after you do it once you link it to your account on your computer and it'll remember you.
The kind of experience that you get with Tobii is a little hard to describe in pictures or video, but it's easily the most natural and fluid interface we've ever used. You don't have to think about anything at all, it's simply that wherever you're looking, that's where the cursor is. It's forgiving, too: there's no need to be at an exact distance from the screen or dead center or perfectly still. You just sit there like you normally do and look at stuff. It's incredible.
For example, one of the demos (which you'll see in the video below) is a photo gallery. There are a fair number of small pictures, but Tobii has no trouble telling which one you're focusing on. As you do, that picture appears at the top of the gallery, and if you look at it, it fills the screen. Look down, and it goes back to the gallery.
Tobii is responsible for the hardware that does all of this magic, but the user interface demos are just some samples that Tobii whipped up to show off all the different ways in which the technology can be implemented. Some of the demos were better than others; for example, one of the laptops was rigged up with a Windows navigation demo that involved using both eye tracking and mouse clicks. Tobii said that the idea with the mouse was to make the experience faster, but but we were definitely most impressed with the ways that we were able to use just our eye movements and nothing else. No mouse, no keyboard, no voice, no hands, no nothing. Just a glance.
Where It's Going
At CES, Tobii had several prototype hardware platforms on display that you can check out in the gallery below. At this point, the sensors are a bit clunky for laptops (although that didn't stop Tobii from making up a few concepts anyway), and it adds a fair bit of bulk to desktop all-in-ones as well. However, this kind of thing always gets smaller and sleeker, and we'd like to think that it'll turn out to be sort of like Kinect, in that it starts out as an add-on for things such as TVs and desktop PCs, and transitions slowly into a form factor that can fit into the bezel of a laptop (as we saw with the 3D gesture sensing system that Intel demoed at its keynote).
As far as timeframes go, Tobii seems optimistic that the company will have some version of its system available in just a year or two, which seems about right. Our hands-on demo was fairly flawless, there's clearly a market (we'd be signed up already if Tobii was letting people sign up for anything), and major partners such as Lenovo are already working with Tobii on integration. We're definitely super excited for this (Kevin has been giggling like a little girl ever since the demo), and we can only imagine what this could mean for applications such as gaming, where you'll be able to pwn n00bs in first-person shooter just as fast as you can look at them. Yeah, this is basically everyone's UI dreams made real, and we can't wait for it to be unleashed into the consumer market.
Posted on location at CES 2012 in Las Vegas. All photos taken by Evan Ackerman and Kevin Hall for DVICE.