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Exclusive: SMI's 'Social Eye' Tracking Breathes Life Into Avatars

Exclusive: SMI's 'Social Eye' Tracking Breathes Life Into Avatars

Social interactions are, for better or worse, becoming an ever more essential feature for the new technologies and ideas being pumped out of the world’s innovation centers. This mantra may lead to unnecessary add-ons that bloat some startups unnecessarily but, for the VR revolution in particular, it is a puzzle in desperate need of solving.

German technology firm SMI (SesnoMotoric Instruments) is expanding on its previously disclosed eye-tracking technology to make social interactions in VR more believable. The system, dubbed “Social Eye” by the company, uses a blend of hardware and software to capture a user’s eye movements inside a VR headset, and translate them onto a digital avatar.

According to SMI:

“The SMI Social Eye provides a breakthrough solution by accurately tracking the gaze of the wearer of the VR HMD (head mounted display) and animating the eyes of the avatar in real time. Virtual characters can gaze, blink, wink and show pupillary reactions to acknowledge others, express their feelings or simply make a point.”

SMI’s technology in its initially demonstrated state was useful for some in-game inputs, such as selecting where to fire a gun with your eyes rather than your head. It could also be used for foveated rendering, a process which more efficiently renders a virtual scene because it only shows the most detail directly in front of where your eye is pointed.

Even in the relatively narrow confines of a VR headset, a user is only seeing the most detail in a small percentage of what’s on screen. Foveated rendering determines exactly what percentage that is and allows the system to focus its rendering power on that specific spot.

Eye tracking startups Eyefluence and The Eye Tribe were both recently purchased by Google and Facebook respectively. One can safely assume that eye-tracking is an all-but-confirmed feature for future iterations of the major VR headsets, but where does that leave SMI? The technology is  impressive but, by the company’s own analysis, it is also too expensive to market unless it can achieve the scale of being included by the headset manufacturer.

“We are in active conversations with some of the major VR corporations,” said SMI director Christian Villwock. “Nothing is final at this time so you’ll understand if I can’t give you specifics.”

When asked when people can expect to experience SMI’s eye-tracking for themselves, Villwock’s reply was that, “eye-tracking is going to be a part of VR in the immediate future…People can expect to see headsets with SMI eye tracking in 2017.”

SMI will be officially announcing Social Eye during CES this week in Las Vegas.

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