Earlier this week, Apple announced its acquisition of  SensoMotoric Instruments (SMI), an eye-tracking development research firm. The move follows Google's October 2016 decision to buy Eyefluence, an eye-tracking interface startup. Both of these moves showcase a greater movement within the VR/AR industry space to optimize technology. The first wave of HMDs are out, but eye-tracking will provide an advanced interface that will be an enormous benefit to marketers and researchers, as well as experience developers.

Data Gathering AND Interface

A method already exists to track the user's gaze in VR. A heat map gives a visual representation of where the user is looking. Areas with high concentration are highlighted in red while objects that did not attract attention remain in blue - very similar to a thermal map. This tool allows VR developers to ideally place interaction points at hot spots and take advantage of where the user is looking. It can also showcase weaknesses in the design in terms of properly grabbing and directing user attention.

While heat mapping is a useful tool for data gathering, that is its only function. Eye-tracking goes a step further. With eye-tracking, developers can again track where the user is looking - and for how long. Eye-tracking, however, can also be used as an interface system. Instead of voice commands or spatial computing, users can simply look at the object they wish to trigger an interaction with. Experiences can also be designed to respond to eye-tracking interfaces, which would deepen the sense of immersion.

Imagine playing a game where the shopkeeper NPC only speaks/responds when the player is paying attention or designing learning methods that can measure how focused a student is. The benefits are clear for data gathers and developers wishing to create the next level of immersive experiences.

Foveated Rendering

Another large benefit of eye-tracking is foveated rendering, inspired from foveated imaging. Foveated imaging is a digital image processing technique where image resolution, or the amount of detail visible, varies across the spectrum of an image according to one or more fixation points. Fixation points indicate the highest resolution region and correspond to the center of the eye's retina (the fovea).

Foveated rendering takes this principle and applies it to software design, meaning that programmers will no longer need to fully render a 360-degree space simultaneously. This will save processing power on a drastic scale, allowing higher-end VR experiences to be developed more easily.

The Future of Eye-Tracking

Apple's acquisition of SMI is a strong signal that the company is thinking seriously about advanced headset technology - AR and/or VR. It can also be seen as Apple insuring that it is not left behind. Google purchased Eyefluence months before. HTC is developing eye-tracking enhancements with 7invensun and Tobii. Oculus bought The Eye Tribe in December 2016. FOVE, the first HMD with eye-tracking built in, began shipping developer kits in January of 2017. Across the industry, eye-tracking represents a clear advancement in VR and AR technology.