How Eye-Tracking Tech Goes From Elite Video Gamers to Your PC

E3, the annual gaming confab that starts Monday in Los Angeles, is just the sort of place to show off an impressive niche product such as the Sentry Eye Tracker, which is designed to help people train for video game competitions. But this particular gamer gadget is hiding significantly wider ambitions.

The Sentry is a slim bar that sits under a PC monitor and watches a player’s eyes, analyzing information about where he looks and how long he focuses on parts of the screen. The idea—for now, anyway—is to track gamers in the same way baseball coaches watch hitters and scrutinize video to find hitches in a swing. The device is produced by a company, called SteelSeries, that makes headphones and game controllers.

“We have so much data, so many numbers, so many figures, that teams like us should use way more wisely that we do right now,” says Patrik Sattermon, chief gaming officer with Fnatic, a professional gaming team, in a video produced by SteelSeries. “You can analyze what I’m looking at, and then you can try to re-hotwire your brain in the sense that’s going to improve your game in the future.”

SteelSeries hasn’t given a price for the product and is hoping to expand its scope significantly by the time it hits the market. The real goal is to use eye-tracking to control games, not just gather information about how they’re played. The company has already been working for month with Sweden’s Tobii Technology, maker of the eye-tracking technology in the Sentry, on a device that allows players to use their eyes to move a cursor around the screen.

SteelSeries said on Monday that it’s working to add this function in the future, and there’s reason to suspect it could have applications far beyond competitive gamers. Tobii sees the main applications in assistive devices for people with disabilities, academic research, and market research for businesses trying to figure out what holds the attention of their customers (a use for which Tobii already has 50 clients). A recent study for the Cleveland Indians baseball club put eye-tracking glasses on several dozen fans to get a sense of which stadium billboards they looked at most frequently.

Tobii is also working on technology that would allow retailers to track people’s eyes even without glasses, in relatively small environments such as a kiosk. “We’re already talking to a number of retailers; it’s just a matter of who goes first,” says Barbara Barclay, general manager of Tobii North America. It could be in use within two years. The creepiness factor is obviously a factor here, and Barclay says Tobii is working through the privacy implications of the technology.

The biggest market of all, of course, would be installing eye-tracking tech into laptops, phones, and tablets. Intel, which knows something about getting technology into a wide range of devices, is one of Tobii’s primary investors. Some Samsung Electronics phones already have eye-tracking technologies that can sense whether someone is looking at the phone.

More robust eye-tracking capabilities will likely be confined to PCs for the near future, Barclay says, due to the constraints on size and power in mobile computing. To run the technology on a smartphone, much of the processing would have to be offloaded into the operating system, rather than having the eye tracker do it all itself.

By early 2015, some personal computers will likely be sold with the same technology preinstalled. In this sense, the gamer-focused Sentry making its debut at E3 is just a start.

“Gaming is extra fun. The character can look back at you because your eyes are on it, or the game acts differently because it knows you did or didn’t scan the areas you should have—you could be ambushed differently,” says Barclay. “That’s going to be very accessible to people as phase one.”

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