Could the next iPhone be an eye-tracking phone?

Could the next iPhone be an eye-tracking phone?

Summary: While the clock ticks on the arrival of the next iPhone version, old Apple devices will soon be able to offer eye and face-tracking capabilities via uMoove.

TOPICS: Software, iPhone

Whatever rumours you want to believe regarding the release date of the next iPhone (10 September? 15 November?), its hardware features (12-megapixel camera!), display (5.7-inch HD screen!) or even its name (iPhone 5S? iPhone 6?), two things are certain: one, the unveiling of Apple's new device is not far away; and two, it stands to reason that said device will have some barnburner features in order to regain market share Apple has lost recently to Samsung.

Thus it's likely that Apple is going to try and out-Samsung Samsung, meaning that it will try to take whatever features the Galaxy devices have and do them one better in the new iPhone. One of those features is eye-tracking; on the Galaxy S4, you can pause or stop a video playing on the screen simply by looking away. The phone 'knows' when you've stopped watching, and assumes you want to watch the rest of the show, so it pauses the video until you're ready.

If Yitzi Kempinski, CTO and co-founder of uMoove, knows whether that feature — or a more advanced application of real eye-tracking — will be included on the next iPhone, he isn't letting on. Many companies are working with uMoove though, and within months, the first apps and games that use the company's completely software-based eye- and face-tracking technology will be on the market.

uMoove, which has been in business for three years but was in stealth mode until just a few months ago, is now offer eye- and face-tracking that, Kempinski said, will work with almost any smart device.

"The Kinect and others that can do some eye-tracking require dedicated equipment, like a camera, infrared, etc. What we have is completely software-based, and will be able to work with any iPhone or iPod, for example. If you install an app that uses our SDK, you will be able to magically use eye-tracking on your two-year-old device," he said.

The most obvious use of eye-tracking remains gaming. "Imagine driving a virtual motorcycle using your gaze and eye movements," he said. "It makes sense because drivers online and off move their heads around."

Beyond gaming

Eye and face are useful for a lot more than games, Kempinski said: "You could use face detection, for example, to replace the functions of a mouse; by looking done you would scroll down on a page, just like you would with a mouse." These functions are already available in the uMoove SDK, he said — and eye and face-tracking can enhance the overall computing experience as well.

"By using these eye and head 'gestures' we're able to create an even more immersive experience than you get with gesture," he said. "If you're using hand gestures to control an app, you're by definition excluding touch, since you can't be gesturing and touching with the same hand at the same time. Using eye and face, you can add an additional layer to the computing experience, one that at this time is not in common use."

Far less ambitious functions eat up gobs of memory, but Kempinski claimed that uMoove doesn't hammer it in the same way. "We've tested our SDK in apps on a Galaxy S3 and other devices. It only takes up two percent of the processor in real-time," he said.

"Eye-tracking has been around in some form for a long time, and all the tech was written for hardware-based systems. We had to develop our system from scratch. Not overusing resources was definitely a big challenge, but it was one we had to overcome if we wanted the system to be useful commercially."

Kempinski said the system takes advantage of most of the sensors on smart devices, from 2D camera light sensors to the accelerometer.

"You have to compensate for things like the shaking of the camera while a person is holding the device, because that could distort the eye-tracking," Kempinski said. "You also have to make sure that the tracking works in various levels of light, even low light, and in the mobile environment the light changes when you move just a few inches.

"While we call it eye-tracking, the truth is there is much more behind it, [including a slew of patents]. The eyes often move involuntarily and you have to figure out whether a particular movement was meant to accomplish a task or is something to ignore." Not to mention that you want may want eye-tracking in some contexts, such as moving an object in a game, "but there are times you need to ignore it, like when a player wants to check their score on the screen".

While eye-tracking may be still considered a novely in computing terms, not that long ago the same was said about touch.

"Like touch and voice, eye and face provide another layer of the computing experience, and another set of options for users," he said. "Just like touch did not, and probably won't in the near future, replace keyboards and mice, eye and face will be added to the mix to make interfacing with devices more fun and productive. We lived just fine before touch, but it brought another level of interaction to computing, and so will this."

Yitzi Kempinski (Photo: uMoove)

Topics: Software, iPhone

David Shamah

About David Shamah

David Shamah has been writing about Israeli technology news for over a decade, both in print and on the web, and knows the Israeli tech scene and its start-ups inside out.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Now the muggers will cut your finger as well....Bahahahaha

    IPhones are for fools like Master Yoda.
  • next iphone, as in the 2014 model

    Yep that's about the time iphone will have eye tracking... but with an interesting wrinkle it will suddenly jump to the eyes of the person next to or behind you.
    • Will they name it "The EyePhone6?

      Just curious.
      William Farrel
  • Don't forget that eye tracking is bad

    Or have I missed the memo that changed things AFTER samsung had it on the galaxy's?

    Is this going to be the traditional itard defence - it was crap when samsung did it but if apple do it, well, we'll cream ourselves to use it.

    You can't make this stuff up.
    Little Old Man
    • Sigh

      "Bad" when describing a feature is subjective. And yes, sometimes the implementation can fall short of the Platonic ideal. Platonic ideals being unencumbered by the laws of physics and economics. Sometimes second movers do learn something from the first-movers, and here we have the essence of using art history to understand culture, and we stand at the point where we can say "Dude... The material dialectic, that's heavy, man."

      For the record, whatever we're talking about, I was not compelled to get a Samsung product because of it, I don't care if it gets into an iPhone, I am not getting the app in the meantime, and I will not be trying green eggs and ham.
      • Try creepy, unnecessary, pointless

        Those were the descriptions from people that had never tried it, had no interest in trying it, but because it was a different manufacturer or OS, it was just sh1t.

        For the record, whatever you were talking about, I really don't care one bit. What you're taking, now that interests me.
        Little Old Man
    • Re: Or have I missed the memo that

      You have missed the memos that said it does not actually work on Samsung devices, despite the promise.

      Sort of like the hypothetical KNOX security....
  • As is typical in instances like this

    leave it to Apple to come up with the only innovations that are to be seen in the mobile phone space today.

    As we have come to realize, where Apple leads, others will surely follow. I wholly suspect that Samsung’s next generation phone will integrate some type of eye tracking feature into its design, as they have proven that if there is one thing they excel at, it is copying Apple.
    Timothy Cook
    • Err.. hello?

      Samsung already have eye tracking!!

      If you read the article it says and I quote:
      "One of those features is eye-tracking; on the Galaxy S4, you can pause or stop a video playing..."

      Lord Minty
      • Folks, you missed his point

        Or rather he didn't use the /s to tell you it was pure sarcasm.
        Little Old Man
    • Read the article...

      Samsung Galaxy S4 ALREADY has this feature, besides some others such as voice activated camera...
      Who is copying now????
  • A Boilerplate More Cromulent

    There's Betteridge's Law.

    There's this guy's response to Question Headlines, specifically "Yes, no, maybe, don't know, do I care?"

    But when a question headline is followed up by a pitch for retro-fitting via app, and thus the speculative future feature spotlit in the question does not matter, perhaps I need to add "Did you care?" to my response.
  • not reliable so not Apple-pickable

    Apple is not so much an innovator as a polisher - they use tried and reliable technology to present a stable and intuitive user experience. Siri was a mis-step since the VR technology that everyone raved about as revolutionary was 20 years old but not reliable (unless you use speaker-dependent trainable versions) - and it shows. Eye gaze technology - and I mean reliable eyegaze - is expensive to do well ( the camera needs to be positioned exactly and calibrated frequently) and Apple would likely not touch it since it would be a poor user experience after the "shiny and new" factor wore off. If you look at tech history, Apple does not lead with new untried technology.
    • Polishing other people's t***s

      Polisher? Yeah rite, OK.

      Siri isn't Apple tech - it's Nuance's and they are the experts in that field, not Apple.
      Lord Minty
  • More useless bells & whistles

    Just because a technology has workability does not mean it has practical uses, especially for the average consumer.
    It seems tech paste ons have influence the soft market for phones and tablets, but practical and simplistic is not what these bells and whistles offer.
  • All software?

    Excuse me? Are they saying that they can do eye/face tracking on phones with no front facing camera? Or no camera? No hardware, no feature.
  • I hear the NSA has requested this feature

    That's right folks, your iphone is CONSTANTLY recording everything you do and sending it to the NSA.
    • Oh Toddy!

      I just read today that MS Activesync was designed with NSA syncing from the get-go. Uses the video cameras too so you better put that 920 in a drawer before pleasuring yourself!

      You silly!
      • Is that what you read?

        Because I read that while you are listening to any itunes song, it is listening to you and sending everything it hears to the NSA.
  • Could the next iPhone be an eye-tracking phone?

    I sincerely hope not. It's a useless gimmick.