Tobii’s EyeX eye-tracking controller reviewed
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A brief optical interlude
After my frustration with the EyeX, I tried a couple strategies. To completely eliminate the glare from glasses, I did get a single pair of contacts in my prescription. I’ve worn glasses since I was two years old, and I’d never tried contacts before, so this step was a bigger deal to me than it may seem. Unfortunately, contacts were a dead end. I actually couldn’t see much better with them in than with no corrective lenses in front of my eyes at all, and the EyeX didn’t track any better with them in place. This outcome baffled my optometrist. Perhaps there’s some undiagnosed condition to blame for this, but that’s a mystery for me to figure out later. Maybe that’s why I’ve never been able to see those darn 3D Magic Eye things.
Luckily, my optician was more helpful. He’s known me since I was two, and he listened patiently as I rambled on about why I was there and what I wanted to accomplish. We settled on getting new lenses with Crizal Prevencia coating for my existing frames. My previous lenses were four years old, and had the regular Crizal coating from the time. Demands of this review aside, I’m sure I would have picked the Prevencia option with new lenses anyway, since it’s so strongly recommended for heavy screen users. This coating is similar to Gunnar Optiks products but without the amber tint. Long story short, the EyeX worked somewhat better for me after I got my new lenses, but still not as well as it did for others. I decided this result was good enough and tried using the thing day-to-day.
Putting the EyeX to work
For non-gaming usage, I decided to take the EyeX to work. I thought my office environment would give its features the best real-world test I could offer, since my work PC uses a 23″ flat screen. Generally speaking, the EyeX performed as advertised with this screen. I didn’t find the tracker all that useful with my work computer, though. Even though the EyeX was able to track my eyes better on that screen, some of its more useful software features weren’t available on my work-issued Windows 8.1 install.
I knew that the EyeX’s Windows Hello integration wouldn’t work on Windows 8.1, since it’s only available on Windows 10. (Side note: Hello worked perfectly with my face and the EyeX, no matter what.) What I didn’t expect was to miss out on Tobii features like Presence, which dims your screen if you leave your desk, or Application Switcher, which automatically makes the window you are looking at the active window. Another feature that performs touchpad gestures using eye movements only works with Synaptics touchpads. Those limitations seem artificial to me, but perhaps there’s some underlying service or dependency that makes them Windows 10 exclusives.
With those functions out of the running, I could only test some pointer-related features called “Mouse Warp” and “Mouse Clone.” Clone never felt natural, since I had to trigger it by pressing and holding a key. The tool spawns a second cursor at the point you’re looking at on screen for as long as the hotkey is held down. While this feature does work, I just didn’t see the application for it. Maybe it would make more sense if the EyeX software supported multiple monitors in the future, each with its own EyeX.
I thought I might like Mouse Warp at first. This feature lets you bump your mouse and have the cursor appear at the on-screen point where your eyes are focused. It was pretty neat to automagically have the cursor appear in close proximity to where I was looking without additional effort. When I began using Warp, I overshot everything I intended to click on, but I got a feel for the feature after a couple hours. To make this behavior more predictable, I would look somewhere, bump the mouse slightly, wait for the cursor to appear where I was looking, and then move it to complete my selection. That process was more fluid in action than it might sound.
I ended up turning off Mouse Warp after a couple of days, since more often than not, it ended up putting my cursor where I didn’t want it. For example, when I read a webpage, I might leave my cursor up by the top of the browser window and toggle between a couple tabs without looking away from the page. With Mouse Warp turned on this wasn’t possible. As soon as I moved my mouse, my cursor would show up in the middle of the page instead of the tab I wanted. Browsing image galleries and skipping around in YouTube videos presented the same problem.
Tobii seems to be aware of this issue. When you turn Warp on, you can set a slider for an inactive zone. With this zone on, if your eyes are within a certain distance from the cursor, the mouse won’t warp when you move it. I tried setting this zone from its five-centimeter default all the way up to its 10cm maximum, but not only is that not enough radius to cover the distance from the center of a webpage to the browser’s tab bar, it’s also too wide to accommodate some of the warping you’d actually want your mouse to make.
Ultimately, my experience with the EyeX at work rewarded me with little functionality for all the trouble I’d gone through. I got excited when I discovered that Tobii had made a Chrome extension that allowed for auto-scrolling as a user reads a web page, but it turned out to be unsupported. That left me thinking: what exactly am I supposed to do with this thing? Oh, right…
If you read Tobii’s forums, it’s obvious that the EyeX developers are primarily focused on game integration. That’s completely fair, since the company markets the tracker as a gaming peripheral, after all. I’m guessing Tobii also doesn’t want to cut into the profits of its lucrative medical device division by giving too many capabilities to such an affordable device, either.
The EyeX currently supports 30 different games, from triple-A titles like Tom’s Clancy’s The Division to what are basically tech-demos showing off the potential of the hardware. My game of choice, DayZ, is somewhere in-between. The game implements a Tobii feature called Infinite Screen Extension that essentially hands over control of a point-of-view hat switch to your eyes. Since looking around only moves what you’re looking at and not what you’re aiming at, my specific problems with eye tracking are mitigated somewhat. Looking around in a game world doesn’t require super-high eye tracking precision.
A common problem I ran into with the EyeX is that it has a harder time tracking when the user is looking at the left and right edges of the screen. That problem was especially true for me, but other people I roped into testing the device noticed it, as well. That can be a problem outside of games, where we’d expect uniform behavior across the entire desktop. It’s not so big a deal in-game, though. If you look at something on the edge of the screen, the camera naturally brings that focal point to the center of the display where the tracking is better. I found that adjusting my view this way felt quite natural.
The Tobii software lets owners fiddle with per-game eye-tracking settings in its menus, but I was fairly happy with the defaults. The EyeX even worked well with DayZ on my 34″ curved screen. Among other things, DayZ is a game about atmosphere and situational awareness, and I really think that the EyeX contributes positively to both. I would expect that other Bohemia Interactive games would benefit from the EyeX, too.
After testing out DayZ, I tried two of the games that Tobii offers on its own app store. The first was Beatshot, and I quite enjoyed it. It’s more of a proof-of-concept than a game, but it’d hold its own against a classic like Audiosurf if it was fleshed out more. The game shows patterns of targets in tandem with some music, and you need to look at the targets in time with the rhythm of the music to score. As it stands, the canned one-minute demo is fun to show off and run through a few times, but that’s about it. Someone take this idea and run with it, please.
The other game I tried was Spectrophobia. In this game, you play as a small girl who’s ended up in a scary generic dungeon. This title uses more traditional keyboard-and-mouse controls. There are some items in the world that you can only interact with by looking at them using the EyeX, though, and parts of the dungeon that you can only see if you look in the reflection of a mirror. By looking at specific symbols, I was able to turn my harmless gaze into a fiery attack while also using mirrors to light invisible torches that unlocked doors. Spectrophobia felt interesting, if a little contrived.
I don’t own Tom Clancy’s The Division, but based on my experience with the EyeX, I’m not sure I would trust it with the job of aiming my weapon or grenades. The “cover at gaze” function seems similarly prone to error. However, the map-scouting and enemy-tagging-related features seem like novel uses of of the hardware that would work pretty naturally and without much downside in the event of a glitch. I feel obligated to mention again that I might have more confidence in the more critical control functions if the EyeX didn’t hate my face.
For what it’s worth, Editor-in-Chief Jeff Kampman tried out the EyeX at CES with another Ubisoft title, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate. That game implements enemy-tagging and grapple-point-selection features using the EyeX. He found the Tobii controller added a somewhat more immersive way of interacting with Syndicate‘s game world, even if it wasn’t a revolutionary one. If you really like Ubisoft games, that developer seems to have a tight relationship with Tobii. An EyeX might be a worthy investment if you’re looking for neat new ways of enjoying those titles.
You’ll recall from my section on using the EyeX on a desktop that it seemed like some logical functionality was artificially limited in the software. I think that’s a shame, but I also understand why that’s the case. Tobii does make hardware and software under its Dynavox brand that is intended for use by people with limited communication skills. As medical devices, the prices for those products start in the thousands or tens of thousands of dollars, and they’re likely only attainable if an insurance company can be convinced one is necessary.
The EyeX, on the other hand, retails for $140, and it’s pretty easy to find YouTubers with coupon codes that lower the price to just $100. That makes it a pretty reasonable proposition if assisted or augmented communication methods are on your radar. You need the other half of the equation in the form of software to communicate with the EyeX, though, and that’s where Gazespeaker comes in. Gazespeaker is designed for use with a number of eye and head tracking devices. It includes many features such as visual communication grids, text-to-speech functions, an email client, a web browser, a media player, and even a file explorer. It’s a pretty impressive piece of software, considering it’s available for free.
Taken together, the EyeX and Gazespeaker form a potent and affordable duo. I tested the combination out myself, and it performed admirably. I credit this to the secondary tier of calibration that Gazespeaker performs in-app, as well as the simple nature of the program itself. Fortunately, you don’t have to rely solely on my experience here, because a member of our household is exactly the right person to really put the combo though its paces.
Our daughter, Ellie, has Cornelia de Lange Syndrome and most of the symptoms associated with it. She’s far from your average three-year-old, to be sure, but generally speaking she’s a very happy girl these days. Her primary qualifications as my co-reviewer are the trach she’s had since she was two months old and her limb differences that prevent her from using a traditional input device (her friends affectionately refer to them as “t-rex” arms). The trach also prevents her from vocalizing, for the most part. Developmentally, Ellie does not act her age, but she is clearly capable of learning and she shows off new tricks all the time. She even started school recently, and we expect to be amazed and terrified by what she learns there, just like all parents.
I had no delusions about putting Ellie in front of the EyeX and Gazespeaker for the first time, though. It’s tough to convince her to pay attention to anything that isn’t My Little Pony or Curious George, but she has always liked lights and screens (that’s my girl!) so I was excited to get an idea of what she would focus on with the EyeX. After humoring me for about 15 minutes, Ellie made it clear she was done with her first session. What we saw in those 15 minutes was intriguing, though.
Because we carefully positioned Ellie at the right distance and angle, the EyeX was able to do a fairly decent job of tracking her eye movements. We don’t call her a crazy baby without reason, though, and her gaze moved all over the place no matter what we tried to show her within Gazespeaker—save for one exception. The red circle in the center of Japan’s flag consistently held her gaze long enough to change the language of the program to Japanese. That might not seem like a big deal, but since Ellie’s differences leave us, as parents, with a reduced ability to understand her preferences and abilities (especially mentally), any insight we can get is valuable. Because of Gazespeaker, the EyeX will continue to be used in our house long after this review is over.
Reviewing the Tobii EyeX was educational, to say the least. I find myself in the unenviable position of having reasons to both enthusiastically recommend it and suggest you pass on it for now. Unfortunately, my most positive and most negative feelings about it are both highly specific to my circumstances. If I remove my unique problems with the device from the equation and focus on whether the EyeX delivers on what it claims to do, it is safe to say that, yes, it does. Whether the EyeX’s $140 price tag is worth it to you will depend heavily on your stable of favorite games and the features that the EyeX enables within them.
I’m fairly confident that the EyeX is only the beginning of the road for mainstream uses of eye-tracking tech, though. Anyone following VR news knows that foveated rendering is a hot topic and a likely method for improving VR quality without requiring 1,000x improvements in graphics-rendering power. That method only works if your PC always knows exactly what you are looking at. Given that requirement, it wouldn’t surprise me if some form of eye-tracking ended up looking back at us in the future. For now, the EyeX remains an interesting curiosity that’s full of promise but a little short on delivery.