Oculus buys Danish eye-tracking developer The Eye Tribe. But will it make VR mainstream?
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The Eye Tribe's founders. Photo credit: The Eye Tribe PR

The Eye Tribe's founders. Photo credit: The Eye Tribe PR

This new addition could give Facebook’s virtual reality division a big leg up. But will it be enough to save them from the year of VR that wasn’t?

News broke yesterday out of Copenhagen that local startup The Eye Tribe had been bought by Facebook’s VR arm, Oculus, for an undisclosed sum. While no release has yet been issued by the companies, a spokesman for Oculus is reported to have confirmed the deal.

Co-founded in 2011 by CEO Sune Alstrup Johansen, Henrik Skovsgaard, Martin Tall, and Javier San Agustin, The Eye Tribe grew out of the research that the quintet had worked on during their time at the IT University of Copenhagen. They later bought the rights to their work from the university and continued to develop their idea while taking part in government-backed projects like those organized by the Danish National Advanced Technology Foundation.

Initially, the idea behind the company was to alter the eye-tracking market with a software solution that could be integrated with their SDK into the cameras of phones and tablets, all without the need for additional hardware which was steeply pushing up the price of this kind of technology.

In September 2013, the company stepped into the hardware game, offering a low cost ($99) device add-on that could be paired with tablets or PCs to add eye-tracking capabilities.

Then in 2014, they rolled out their cloud-based EyeProof analytics platform which they claim could be used to analyze users’ behavior in real-time, helping marketers and others make better decisions.

According to reports, the company saw uses for their software in applications such as providing accessibility for the disabled, games, OS navigation, e-books, market research studies, and usability testing, or even secure logins.

Looking shortly down the line, the apparent crossover uses for a platform like Oculus is fairly clear. Still used mostly for gaming and creation now that the Touch controllers are finally on sale as of this month, the possibilities for using eye-tracking as a part of game play are probably the easiest to integrate.

However the company also mentions on their website how their software can be used for optimizing websites and magazines, creating heatmaps of where the user is looking. This would seem to be very valuable for Facebook as it can better judge user behavior in looking at ads, and maybe even creating a new class of ad payments. Imagine Facebook offering an option where advertisers would pay for the amount of time that a user is looking at their ad. The feedback that could be derived from it for both the advertisers and Facebook’s design team could be pretty spectacular.

At first glance, it is difficult to say if The Eye Tribe’s tracking technology is particularly more advanced than their competitors, thus making them more attractive to Oculus for the acquisition. If I had to put money down on it, I would argue that it was probably their EyeProof platform that put them out ahead of the rest, giving the data-driven Facebook-backed team an easier way to assess user behavior.

What happened to 2016 as the year of VR?

This was supposed to be the year that VR took over. Looking back, it clearly fell short of the expected splash. As had been expected, the devices from all manufacturers are still not yet widespread.

According to figures put out by the research group TrendForce, they estimate that only about 3 million VR devices were sold in 2016, taking into account the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Playstation VR, and other manufacturers. Sony led the pack with 1.5 million units said to have been sold, with Oculus claiming 650,000 units to HTC’s 460,000.

For a brand spanking new technology that runs at $400-$500 for the headset alone, not including the workhorse PC for the Rift and Vive, that isn’t bad. However it is clear that this tech is still so far from the mainstream.

Only the really hardcore early adopters — and frankly, probably most of them are developers — really seem to be buying this first generation of consumer products.

At this point, there aren’t enough games for the casual gamers to really sink their teeth into.

Co-Founder and game developer at Total-Viz, Oren De-Panther Weizman, tells Geektime that, “We are at a point where there are some developers with deep understanding of the medium, and there are lots of games, but we are still lacking in good and diverse content on the different stores.”

“2016 wasn’t the year of VR for consumers as we are still lacking in good content and the tech has much more to improve, but for developers it’s a good time to join the ride,” he says.

Weizman sees growth for the industry moving into 2017, saying that he expects to “see more VR arcade halls / escape rooms and more good content on the different stores, but it’ll take time for the mass market to adopt the tech on a daily basis.”

Facebook is thankfully exploring other options, with Mark Zuckerberg having shown off the Rift’s capabilities as a social tool, having a conference call on stage at Oculus Connect in early October.

Facebook’s social demonstration opens up new possibilities that everyone was already thinking about for VR, using it for communication and eventually uploading your pictures, etc to Facebook VR. This is important as the vast majority of us out there are not gamers, but want to take advantage of what VR has to offer.

For the time being though, the lack of content out there for the non-gamer feels kind of gloomy.

One of the high points for me this year was the launch of Inception VR, co-founded by the charismatic CEO Benny Arbel, CMO Dana Porter, CCO Effi Wizen, CTO Nitzan Shenar and serial investor Gigi Levy-Weiss. This Israeli startup is developing one of the most important and mainly missing elements of the VR ecosystem: quality content. They have teamed up with TimeOut magazine and The Boiler Room among others to create well produced VR experiences. With some time to create a full library of content, this group could become the Netflix of VR, offering users with little interest in gaming a reason to consider picking up a proper headset.

More importantly, as first movers taking the reigns and pushing content creation forward with their patented production and direction methodology, they are posed to have a significant impact on the direction of content in this medium’s space that could be quite powerful.

On a more technical level, moving into the next stages of development, Weizman cites different methods to reduce nausea, haptic feedback, and more natural controls as key upgrades that he would like to see.

I would go one further, and say that the next generation needs to be like the Microsoft Hololens. While still pretty heavy, it is self contained and the user can walk around their house without the need for wires. Until Oculus and others are ready to ditch the junk in the trunk, they will have trouble appealing to the wider audience that has grown accustomed to going wireless.

So while the VR industry is still in its infancy, we will have to remember to differentiate the hype from the reality, as with all other kinds of early stage technologies.

Perhaps the bigger question though is what is our vision of VR, and how will it define us? With the sense that augmented reality could overtake VR as the more popular platform (remember Pokemon Go that everyone was playing on their phones this past summer?), what is the role of a technology that limits us to one place in time? Are we ready for something where we commit to be in one place, albeit with access to a totally immersive world? Will we use it to sit in each other’s living rooms across continents or slip into our own fantasies?

All that said, looking at 2016, it might be nice to jump off to an alternate reality, even if just for a little while.

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Gabriel Avner

About Gabriel Avner

Gabriel has an unhealthy obsession with new messaging apps, social media and pretty much anything coming out of Apple. An experienced security and conflict consultant, he has written for The Diplomatic Club, the Marine War College, and covers military affairs with TLV1 radio. He mostly enjoys reading articles wherever his ADD leads him to and training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. EEED 44D4 B8F4 24BE F77E 2DEA 0243 CBD1 3F7C F4B6

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