Often, the next great bump in consumer or enthusiast technology comes from a lab that has entirely different goals in mind. Such is the case with the research wing of eye tracking company Tobii, which recently announced what it calls its most advanced eye tracker to date, the Tobii Pro Glasses 2.
At CES 2017, I met with Mike Bartels, Tobii Senior Research Director, Insight Services, to get a demo of the spectacles and get a glimpse into the research they provide. As sometimes happens at CES, I met with Bartels in a bustling mall of restaurants within a casino, and we made our way to a quiet hallway in a far wing of the facility to talk and, er, look.
Into The Real World
Tobii is a multifaceted company; we’ve written much about what it’s doing in the gaming world, including using eye tracking as a navigation tool for standard PC gaming and leveraging it for foveated rendering in both PC gaming and virtual reality (VR) environments. However, we’ve also looked at its efforts in the world of research: its Tobii Pro Spectrum kit is essentially a lab tool that helps researchers learn about human beings from their eye and head movements paired with other biometric data.
The Tobii Pro Glasses 2 is effectively a way to take some of the human behavior research out of the lab and into the real world.
Simply put, a subject dons the spectacles and walks around, looking at things, while a researcher hangs back and watches a live video feed from the glasses on a laptop. The glasses’ hardware tracks all of the wearer’s eye movements, and the laptop’s software uses that data to map everywhere that person looks.
For example, if you’re a grocer and want to know the optimal placement for certain products on your shelves, you could send Pro Glasses 2-wearing subjects into your stores, and in little more time than it takes a person to complete a stroll down the store’s aisles, you would get a look at where the subject’s eyes landed, when, and for how long.
How It Works
The aluminum, plastic, and stainless steel frame of the Pro Glasses 2 is essentially one piece that runs from ear to ear with a pair of lenses stuck to the front. The middle portion, between your eyes, contains a wide-angle camera that can shoot 1080p HD at 25FPS with a 90-degree field of view (FoV), a microphone, and a gyro and accelerometer.
Ringing the inside of the lenses is a bank of IR sensors, IR illuminators, and eye-tracking cameras. (This is where the magic happens.) “What you have here is an infrared light source that illuminates the eye, and super-small high-speed cameras that take 100 pictures of your eye every second,” said Bartels. Then, the sensors inside the frame track your gaze and plot that onto the camera’s view.
That data is fed into a small recording unit that loops onto your belt. The device is primarily for storage--it comes with a 32GB SD card--but it also processes the eye data. “This is where the magic happens of marrying the eye data with the synced camera video,” said Bartels. That 32GB may not sound like much, but the eye tracking produces a surprisingly small amount of data. “It tends to be about half an hour of data per gigabyte,” Bartels told me.
The system connects to a PC--in the field, usually a laptop or Windows tablet--so the researcher can see what the subject is seeing, all in essentially real time. (There is a small lag to the video feed, but that’s inconsequential in this case, because the subject never sees their own live video.)
There are three ways for the glasses and recording unit to connect to the PC:
- Via a Wi-Fi signal the device creates
- Via any available wireless network (which may be advantageous when the subject needs to move distances beyond 50 feet or so)
- Tethered to the PC via a LAN cable
If you lose that connection, though, despair not; the data is still being recorded locally on the hip-mounted device. All you lose is the ability for the researcher to keep an eye on things in real-time. The data remains intact and available later.
At this point in the article, we’d normally expend some digital ink describing the experience of the demo. However, there’s really nothing to describe: I put on the glasses and looked around, and my data was pumped to Bartel’s laptop. That’s it. And that’s the point: It’s designed to distract the subject as little as possible while collecting as much data as possible.
There is a quick calibration to set you up as a subject, but you just aim the glasses at a dot on a card for a few seconds, and off you go. “Typically, [calibration is] a dot on a screen that you have the person follow around with their eyes. In this case, it’s just a one-point calibration,” Bartels noted. He added that calibration takes between 5-15 seconds.
The Pro Glasses 2 were light on my face--hardly any heavier, it seemed, than my own glasses. I did have to remove my glasses before using the Pro Glasses 2, though. There are a couple of ways around this: One, obviously, is that you can just wear contact lenses, but for blind, bespectacled nerds like me, Tobii has a prescription lens kit. You can just swap out the non-prescription plastic lenses on the device for ones that have your prescription, and away you go.
There is, of course, a software analytics component to all of this, in the form of Tobii Pro Lab software. You can see what the subject is looking at in real time, and that’s helpful, but that basically just provides anecdotal data. For example, if you created a new ad display for your store, you can sit there and watch how subjects look (or don’t look) at the display. You can also go back and view the full video recording at a later time.
For any frame of the video recording, though, you can take a still and have the software superimpose a “heat map” on top of it that shows where the subject’s eyes traveled and for how long. That’s still a bit lacking, though, because it is after all just a snapshot of a moment; so the software also gives you all the eye tracking metrics, so you can quantify everything and get a more comprehensive overview of the performance.
Eye Tracking, Soon To Be Indispensable
For researchers, eye tracking offers new ways to understand human behavior, which will benefit marketers, sure, but also those who are looking for ways to make people’s lives better. For gaming and VR enthusiasts, eye tracking holds a great deal of promise for a new level of control and immersion.
There is little debate that eye tracking is going to become a key component in VR, AR, and MR devices. There are a few companies making waves in that space, including SensoMotoric Instruments (SMI) (notably with its recent attachment to Qualcomm), EyeTech Systems and Quantum Interface, and EyeTribe, which was recently acquired by Oculus. All present some advantage over other solutions, but arguably Tobii’s best asset is its diversity.
Tobii is actively working on eye tracking on multiple fronts. It has in-the-lab solutions, out-of-the-lab tools, and multiple gaming-oriented products, and they’re available for purchase. You can check out products from the gaming wing of the company here, and the Pro products are all here, including the Tobii Pro Spectrum kit.
Tobii offers three different kits for the Pro Glasses 2. The Tobii Pro Glasses 2 “Live View” kit has everything most people should need, including the glasses, recording unit, batteries, SD cards, cables, cords, calibration stimuli, and a tablet PC. The “Live View Wireless” kit offers the same, but with wireless functionality so subjects can roam free and untethered. The “Premium” kit offers all of the above as well as the data analytics software, technical support, and a remote training session. (Short of having the software, you can have Tobii’s Pro Insight Research Services team analyze the captured data and generate reports.)
You can also purchase the above in pieces, a la carte.
The Pro Glasses 2 start at $10,000, if you wish to conduct your own research, but you can hire Tobii to run a project for you, too. The latter has a typical cost range of $10,000-$30,000.