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Tobii's EyeX eye-tracking controller reviewed

It can't see my face as well as yours, but I tried it

When I volunteered to review the Tobii EyeX eye-tracking controller, I had no idea I was signing up for over a month of experimentation and frustration. I never would have guessed that I'd be thinking back on multiple trips to my optometrist and optician, plus the experience of trying out contacts for the first time in my life. I believe that it's important to note up front that part of what you're about to read is clearly not a typical EyeX experience. Everyone else that tested out the controller during my time with it had much smoother experiences than I did. That said, there are some universal facts about the device that I can share, regardless of how well it worked for me.

So what exactly is the EyeX? It's a specialized input device designed to allow certain aspects of the computing experience to be controlled by your eyes. The EyeX uses infrared LEDs and cameras to see your face and track what your eyes are looking at on-screen. That information is used by the EyeX software to control cursor movement on the desktop or camera orientation in games, to give just two examples. My review is of the stand-alone EyeX, but there is at least one laptop that has the technology built-in: MSI's GT72S G Tobii. Both devices are functionally similar. This $140 controller is available directly from Tobii's website.

Installation and calibration
The EyeX attaches to your monitor using magnets in its body and a metal pad with an adhesive backing. The adhesive on the pad is aggressive stuff, not something that can easily be adjusted or removed after it's in place. If you decide to try an EyeX out for yourself, be sure you have the pad level and centered before sticking it on. With the pad in place, the actual installation of the EyeX is as simple as it gets: the magnets grab onto the metal strip, and it more or less self-aligns.

Locked and loaded.

Before you plug the EyeX into the prerequisite USB 3.0 port, you'll want to install the device's companion software. When I plugged mine in for the first time, the utility took a couple minutes to apply the latest firmware to the tracker. After that, the software showed me a screen that allowed me to manually adjust the alignment of the tracker by lining up arrows on the screen with marks on the tracker itself, just in case the unit wasn't installed perfectly on-center. Next up was the calibration process, which is where things started to fall apart for me.

The next screen in the setup process declared "these are your eyes" before two white circles appeared. These dots roughly moved along with my head and occasionally winked on and off unless I held perfectly still. The circles grew larger if I leaned forward and smaller if I leaned back. On-screen instructions told me when my distance from the screen was correct (about 45 to 90 cm, by Tobii's recommendation). My first time through this process, I didn't realize that the sporadic disappearance of one or both eye indicators was already a bad sign. I hit the proverbial "any" key and continued through the setup process.

These are my creepy eyes.

To complete the calibration process, the software told me to "pop the dots" that appear on the screen. It's fairly clear that you're meant to do this just by looking at them. The dot in the center popped easily enough for me, but after that I ran out of luck. Despite dozens of adjustments to the height of my chair, changing my head's angle and distance in relation to my monitor, and even after adjusting the ambient lighting in the room, I wasn't able complete the calibration process. I also gave it a shot without my glasses on, even though I couldn't see anything that way. Nothing I did helped, so I fired off the first of many emails to Tobii support.

Support and troubleshooting
My experience with Tobii's support desk was always positive, if not always helpful. The company quickly responded to all of my inquiries, and it even sent me extra magnetic pads for free so I could test the EyeX on more systems. Even though the hardware and my situation were unique, I eventually hit the same wall we're all used to from support desks: try the things you've already tried, over and over again. I was told to "make sure your glasses are clean" and "make sure you are the right distance from the screen." After verifying these basics, the problems—and my investigation—continued.

Fortunately, Tobii has some fairly comprehensive troubleshooting and diagnostic features built into its software. I was able to see what the tracker saw using these tools, and I was even able to generate a report that collected images from the camera (after giving my permission) so I could send them to the company's support team for analysis. Ultimately, Tobii's engineers found that there was just too much reflection from my glasses for the EyeX to do its magic.

I can't believe Microsoft's in-game screenshot tool captures images of its own notification.

One uncommon feature of my PC setup is its 34" curved screen. Tobii support let me know right away that they had not tested the tracker with curved screens and didn't recommend using the EyeX with one. I thought that was fair enough, since the EyeX is a pretty sophisticated and precise piece of hardware. Perhaps a subtle curve was enough to prevent it from being able to tell what I was looking at on the screen. Perhaps that curve, combined with my glasses, simply meant it wasn't going to work for me. That's when I decided I needed to have other people try it out and see how it worked for them.

At this point in the process, you have to understand that I was preparing to tell our Editor-in-Chief that the EyeX sucked, and that I couldn't even get it working well enough to review it—at least not on my main PC. So when my nephew sat down at my desk and calibrated the unit flawlessly on his first try, I was floored. No adjustments to height, depth, or lighting were needed for him—it just worked perfectly. The "these are your eyes" screen was rock-solid, he popped all the dots effortlessly, and even "Gaze Trace" (a feature that overlays your screen with bubble-like circles that show where you're looking in real-time) moved smoothly for him. Compare that to the highly-caffeinated-amoeba-in-an-earthquake-mess it was when I tried to use it.

Pictures from the EyeX via Windows Hello

Within a few days I cycled five more people though my desk chair to try out the EyeX: my wife (who also wears glasses), my sister, another nephew, and two nieces. All of them completed the calibration process perfectly on either their first or second try. I hadn't gotten it right in close to 100 tries, even after trying two different pairs of glasses, no glasses, and even my prescription dive mask. Clearly, I was the problem, not the EyeX. So I did what any self-respecting gerbil would do in this situation and got my eyes checked.