Eye tracking in VR headsets is the future, and it's starting now

Virtual reality experiences could be all about the way you gaze. Several demos at Mobile World Congress made the magic happen.

Katie Collins Senior European Correspondent
Katie a UK-based news reporter and features writer. Officially, she is CNET's European correspondent, covering tech policy and Big Tech in the EU and UK. Unofficially, she serves as CNET's Taylor Swift correspondent. You can also find her writing about tech for good, ethics and human rights, the climate crisis, robots, travel and digital culture. She was once described a "living synth" by London's Evening Standard for having a microchip injected into her hand.
Katie Collins
3 min read
The Eye Tribe

Ever wished you had the power to influence the world around you using just your eyes? If so, the latest developments in virtual reality technology may be just what you're looking for.

Two separate companies at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week showed off modified Oculus and Samsung Gear VR headsets with built-in eye-tracking capabilities.

In VR, eye tracking is a growing trend: We saw it few times in demos in recent months. For some, controlling otherwise inanimate objects with just your eyes is like a childhood dream of developing telekinetic powers, albeit within a limited, virtual environment. And it could end up in headsets on the market sooner rather than later.

Eye-tracking technology has been around for years, but virtual reality could give it new relevance. Not only does it provide a new way to interact with content, it could have advantages for security and privacy. It could even help preserve battery life, an important consideration for smartphone-powered headsets like the Samsung Gear VR.

VR enthusiasts are banking on 2016 being the biggest year yet for the immersive digital medium, with the two most-hyped headsets, Oculus VR and the HTC Vive, about to hit the shelves. Virtual reality has also been the center of attention here at the world's biggest mobile show, with gaming demos, a VR roller coaster and a talk by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on the social possibilities of virtual reality. But those working with niche technologies like eye tracking are already thinking about the next generation of headsets.

The most obvious benefit of eye-tracking tech for VR is that it will give you a lot more playing options inside games. In a demo game we played using the Oculus Rift, modified with technology from The Eye Tribe, it was possible to see the path the pupils took across the screen since everything we looked at was highlighted in red. Clocking a Viking in the distance and staring at him, he quickly became irate -- first walking forward and then swinging his axe.

Watch this: Two reasons eye-tracking is the future of VR

In another demo from SensoMotoric Instruments using a Gear VR, we were able to play a game of whack-a-mole just by glancing at the beast in question and tapping on the side-mounted control panel.

When it comes to mobile headsets like the Gear VR, the processing power it takes to run VR applications is extremely taxing on smartphone battery life. One solution to this problem is something called foveated rendering, which both eye-tracking companies showed off at MWC. By tracking your pupils, foveated rendering shows only the point on the screen you are viewing at any one moment in full resolution. The rest of the screen is shown in a lower resolution, which requires less juice to render.

That essentially tricks the mind to thinking the whole scene is in full resolution all the time , even though it definitely isn't.

Another VR application that Eye Tribe is working on is authentication. Using eye tracking, it may eventually be possible for a virtual reality headset to know immediately whose profile and content it should show.

Eye Tribe has been working on trying to place this tech inside smartphones (and even smartwatches) for several years, but believes it may have more success with VR headsets. The sensitivity of the technology decreases the further away it is from the eyes, but placing the sensor in the foam of the VR headset helps eliminate error.

It's unknown whether the big investors in virtual reality are considering put eye tracking in their next-generation headsets,. Oculus did not respond to a request for comment, and a HTC spokeswoman said HTC has no comments on rumor or speculation.