Eye-tracking in games: The next analogue stick?

Since time immortal (in gaming terms) the rules around cameras have been simple. If you wanted to look left or right, you either had to move your character, or pan the camera. Both require you to move a mouse, d-pad or stick in your chosen direction. But what if I told you that it’s possible to move the camera by simply looking in your desired direction? “Blasphemy,” I hear you say. “Sorcery.”  But it’s true, I’ve done it. And I’m not even a wizard.

That’s the dream of Tobii tech. While the Swedish company’s main business is providing assistive technology for people suffering from cerebral palsy or Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the long term dream is to bring eye-tracking technology to the masses. Initially aiming to enter the gaming market, Tobii has partnered with SteelSeries to create the Sentry – a desktop peripheral that attaches to your screen and tracks your eye movement, which is then interpreted by the game.


Testing Assassins Creed

Ubisoft producer Corneliu Vasiliu was one person who saw the Sentry, and he was impressed. He bought one, took it to his development team, and two weeks later it’s in Assassin’s Creed: Rogue. It was only after the fact that Tobii actually heard about it. The game allows you to you pan the camera in your desired direction by simply gazing that way – it’s a small change but a big leap for a Triple-A game to test out such a new technology.

I’m pretty well-versed in the world of Assassin’s Creed, so I was impressed by how quickly the new feature assimilated itself into how I play. The eye-tracking felt natural; within a few minutes the right analogue stick – for years the default camera panning tool for any adventure-type games – was relegated for use with precision movements only. In another demo, Son of Nor, the eye-tracking was used for targeting. Here, an enemy on the far left of the screen could be targeted and attacked without the need to move the camera or align any crosshairs – yet it was 100% accurate.

The thing that makes eye-tracking so pervasive is two-fold: One, it just works – all it needs is one-time calibration that lasts a couple of minutes. And two – it’s subtle. The right stick still takes priority, nothing’s being forced on you; it’s just a slight tweak to the way you play.

This isn’t an overnight revolution type of product. When analogue sticks were introduced on the likes of the PS1 in the 90s, they were just an alternative movement option to the d-pad. It’s only in the last decade or so that the d-pad has been completely relegated to the role of a sub-menu. It’s easy to see eye-tracking taking a similar route. It’s also not perfect – the Sentry requires you to be quite close and sit fairly still, so it’s no good for people who fidget when playing. But it’s a fairly small quibble.

Oscar Werner, President of Tobii tech, talks about using eye-tracking so characters respond when you look at them. He shows us a concept video where focus and sounds change in videos depending where you’re looking. “Immersion” is a word he uses often, and right now he’s hoping more developers get on board.

Beyond gaming

In our interview with Tobii’s Tom Englund last year, he talked about democratising eye-tracking tech, making it cheaper and more widely accessible for a wider audience. And not just in gaming – the company wants eye-tracking to become an alternative for mouse-cursers in all kinds of applications.

Just imagine how immersive the likes of Microsoft’s HoloLens, the Oculus Rift or even Google Cardboard would be if it not only knew which way you were facing, but exactly what you were looking at?


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Dan Swinhoe

Dan is a journalist at CSO Online. Previously he was Senior Staff Writer at IDG Connect.

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