Could SyncThink Patent For Adding Eye Tracking In VR HMDs Stifle Innovation?

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) recently issued a patent to SyncThink that grants the neurotechnology company with intellectual property that outlines adding eye tracking technology to VR HMDs.

Eye tracking technology is one of the most sought after advancements for the VR industry. The ability to track your pupils inside a VR HMD can vastly improve the experience. Eye tracking enables features such as avatars that can make eye contact with you, gaze-enabled user interfaces, and even communications within VR environments. Eye tracking is also crucial for foveated rendering, which can significantly reduce the GPU workload for VR experiences.

SyncThink’s primary focus is in the medical applications of eye tracking technology, but the company sees potential in the consumer VR market, too.

“VR technology is the ideal environment for eye tracking. It’s a platform where we can provide powerful cognitive insights,” said SyncThink CTO, Daniel Beeler. “The new patent will give us the ability to expand upon the already useful product we’ve created and the capabilities of multiple industries utilizing VR headsets.”

SyncThink creates tools that "monitor and optimize brain health." The company currently holds 10 neuro-technology patents that include "analytical techniques for stimulating, measuring, and training brain attention networks." SyncThink’s newest patent builds on its portfolio of technologies and enables the detection of brain damage, fatigue, and developmental and neurodegenerative conditions through analysis of a subject’s pupils.

SyncThink developed its eye tracking technology with the help of the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command. It was originally used to evaluate soldiers who experienced brain trauma. Now that the company has a patent on the technology, it is prepared to deploy it into civilian markets. SyncThink already has its eye tracking technology inside a VR HMD called EYE-SYNC that is used for medical purposes, but the company wants to move into other verticals.

"The attention brain network is activated and can be evaluated by measuring eye tracking. Attention can degrade from fatigue, distraction, or clinical conditions such as concussion,” said Dr. Jamshid Ghajar, Chairman of the Board, Chief Scientific Adviser and Founder of SyncThink. “Also there are differences in attention between individuals that can be assessed. In evaluating attention, eye tracking is a very precise, reliable and very fast metric.”

SyncThink’s technology can potentially alter the way we interact with virtual worlds. The company’s eye tracking analytics can determine how attentive you are to the content, which in turn allows "machines and experiences to be far more attuned to our cognitive state." In other words, creators can adapt content to cater to your level of attention.

Is This Good For the Industry?

We have to wonder if this patent is good or bad for the VR industry. At the beginning of October, Michael Abrash, Chief Scientist at Oculus, laid out his predictions for the next five years of virtual reality advancement, and eye tracking technology was very much a part of that. During his talk, Abrash noted that current eye tracking technology is acceptable for eye contact with avatars and navigating through user interfaces. But he also said that there is significant work to be done in the way of eye tracking accuracy before foveated rendering can truly be a viable technique for reducing the GPU workload (which is necessary for wireless HMDs). He posited that the problem might not be solved within the next five years either, although we suspect that Fove, SMI, and Tobii Tech may disagree with that assertion. 

If Abrash is right about eye tracking technology not being up to par for foveated rendering, and that it will take years of engineering to solve the problem fully, then we need as many minds as possible working on this problem. A patent like this could potentially stifle innovation. It wouldn’t be the first time a patent held a technology back from achieving its true potential.

Fortunately, the patent appears to be specific enough that the Rift and Vive shouldn’t be affected. The patent clearly indicates that it is for an HMD with embedded eye tracking and a single screen. The Rift and Vive have two displays inside. It could prevent Oculus and Samsung from adding eye tracking tech to a future Gear VR, though.

 Kevin Carbotte is a contributing writer for Tom's Hardware who primarily covers VR and AR hardware. He has been writing for us for more than four years. 

  • Dantte
    SyncThink developed this technology with the help of the US government (military) and tax payer money! This should exempt them from filing a patent!
  • CaptCalamity
    I thought patents were on implementations not ideas. What is to stop someone from coming up with a different method of tracking pupils?

    If we allow patents to stop innovation on ideas instead of protecting actual implementations then we have a severely broken patent system.
  • clonazepam
    This article reminded me that I had looked up patents regarding VR. Google, Sony, and a few others pretty much have it all carved up for themselves. From GUI implementation to just about anything else you could think of.

    I'd expect to see the same as we've seen with the cell phone market. A lot of patent lawsuits are probably on the way.
  • Jim90
    CAPTCALAMITY: "If we allow patents to stop innovation on ideas instead of protecting actual implementations then we have a severely broken patent system."
  • asgallant
    If the content of the patent specifically covers eye tracking in VR HMD's, it will fail the originality and obviousness tests in any patent challenge, considering that the idea of eye tracking in HMD's has been around since the days when Occulus Rift was just a Kickstarter project.
  • Zapin
    Patents are fine as long as the patent holder does not value it so high that it has a negative effect on Innovation. If a hardware manufacturer can save on R&D by implementing SyncThink techniques into their HMD for a reasonable cost per unit then it could mean the difference between the headset having eye tracking or not. The FOVE uses their own eye tracking I think and I doubt they are freely sharing their methodology.
  • dabeargrowls
    fear mongering BS, that's all this is. Ignore.
  • virtualban
    Lawyers are bureaucratizing everything in sight. They may need to eat too, but, maybe a guillotine is a good solution to starving lawyers and stifled innovation.
  • grimfox
    I don't like this patent. There is no way a medical company is going to share or license the patent without a medical grade price. The company also sounds pretty troll-y. Why would a devoted medical company even look at consumer implications unless they were planning to make a buck of their patent. I'm sure they will go after FOVE or one of the other early eye-tracking companies that can't afford to fight to set a precedent in the courts and then jump on occulus/facebook when they undoubtedly try to use it for foveated rendering or UI usage. Someone needs to jump on this patent right away to get it invalidated. I'm thinking the VR advisory council or similar group. Gather enough companies and lawyers and nip it in the bud.
  • bit_user
    Patents run into problems when they're either overly-broad or insufficiently novel. You'd have to dig into the claims of this one, to see if it meets either criteria.

    The upside of patents is that they allow a company to invest significant amounts of money in R&D, without having to worry about a discount competitor ripping off all their hard work. The other benefit is that it forces companies to share how their product works, so that the techniques can eventually be used by anyone.

    A world with no patents would have less innovation. That said, the existing patent system still needs improvement.

    18746019 said:
    I don't like this patent. There is no way a medical company is going to share or license the patent without a medical grade price.
    I disagree with that. If they aren't stupid, they'll be able to understand the market dynamics of the target product and work out a licensing model that would maximize their revenue.

    Of course, if they're a troll, they'll use tactics more akin to extortion and try to push startups like Fove to the verge of bankruptcy.