SensoMotoric Instruments (SMI) is a Berlin based company involved in creating eye tracking solutions across several industries, and has been doing so for the past 25 years. At MWC I sat down with Christian Villwock, director of OEM sales, to learn more about the company’s eye tracking technology and to see for myself how it works with mobile VR.

I met Villwock in the lobby of the Fira Congress Hotel to try on a modified Gear VR, which was packing the company’s eye tracking kit. Like the previous usecase we saw—integrated into the DK2 to demonstrate the processing power-saving abilities of foveated rendering–it’s the same 250hz eye tracking kit, but neatly fit into the shell of the Gear VR.

Two specially treated pieces of glass reflect the image of the eye to a small pair of cameras placed on either side of the headset. No wires were sticking out, nothing unfinished in the slightest, as the wires are fed into the microUSB connection on the Gear VR, and the chip—shown to me separately to weigh nearly nothing—was hidden in the body of the headset. Black plastic rims with IR diode assemblies replace the original ones at no appreciable change.

I played through 3 simple demos that showed off object interactions. But first I had to calibrate—a quick “look at three red boxes” and I was done. The sort of interactions I went through with the demos were the bog standard for VR eye tracking systems like Fove. Look at an object and select it. Use your eye’s gaze as a flashlight in a dark room.

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These sorts of things may not seem important now, gimmicky even, but as mobile processors take advantage of the savings in processing costs promised by foveated rendering, and use eye tracking to transmit social cues in shared VR spaces like AltspaceVR, the more we’ll see mobile headsets of today as fundamentally lacking. And just like the title says, it’s accurate. So much so that I started to notice the unconscious saccades, or rapid movements your eyes make to help you build a mental 3D map of your environment.

SMI-eye-tracking-1
image source: Tom’s Hardware

SMI initially dressed their technology as a costly aftermarket solution for headsets, but with the caveat that the price is ‘too high for consumers’. While researchers and medical professionals send off for the modification, Villwock maintains that it’s about much more than providing a send-away service for your headset.

“We want this to be standard in the headset and we don’t offer this as a consumer add-on reference, because it’s not a snap on device… this is basically targeted to convince all the headset manufacturers to give them the real thing.”

So while SMI is looking for collaborators and headset manufacturers to integrate their light weight hardware, we’ll be eager to see if the company becomes a part of the next big thing in 2.0 of consumer VR.

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  • CURTROCK

    We are starting to see the gap between GearVR & Rift experience narrow. When these two items converge into non-tethered high-end VR, shit is gonna get real! The next few years are gonna be exciting times.

    • MasterElwood

      Yeah – that´s Michael Abrash prediction. First part of the VR revolution: HMD are getting more powerful and better with every generation – till they are “good enough”. Part 2: They stay “good enough” – but then getting smaller and smaller with every generation – till they are the size of sunglasses and/or contact lenses.

      That is the Oculus 20 year plan. good times ahead…

    • MdM

      I totally agree with how cool this is. But because you know the tethered HMDs are going to integrate eye tracking and do foveated rendering as well, this really does nothing to narrow the gap between the tethered and mobile experiences… that will still be driven by faster and more efficient mobile processors.

      But it definitely allows for a much better mobile experience than previously thought possible at this stage. Just wish I could get my Gear VR modified for cheap. I think it’s likely that we will see a Nexus VR (and possibly the next version of Gear VR) that integrates eye-tracking and computer vision (using a Movidius chip – to allow mobile positional tracking) before the end of the year.

    • cdm283813

      If Samsung/Oculus/Facebook keeps improving the headset and phone technology the experience will only get better. And including free headsets with phones will also do wonders for the platform.
      Good times are ahead. We just got to watch out for garbage like LG VR destroying the experience for others.

  • ConceptVBS

    Samsung invested 10% in Foveon, the company that tracks eye movement. So you can bet that Samsung will start incorporating some of that technology into its own Gear VR in the future.

    • Falcon195

      What an amazing way to reduce processing overhead while drastically increasing resolution where needed. We are looking at a VR explosion. Heaven help us.

      • Falcon195

        Then again, the human eye is incapable of central vision resolution on the periphery therefore programmatically diminishing the VR display periphery will doubly reduce the perceived peripheral vision i.e. you need to retain the display peripheral resolution or there will be a tunnel vision affect.