Someone told me I had to play Assassin's Creed with my eyes before leaving CES. Sounded like a pretty unreasonable request, but thankfully the people behind the Tobii EyeX were on hand at the show to help me achieve my two-day-long dream.
The peripheral looks a bit like a Kinect that sits above a laptop's keyboard, constantly watching the watcher (you). Before getting started with the thing, you have to calibrate the machine — after all, everyone's eyes are spaced differently, because we're all precious snowflakes.
Even the calibration process is kind of fun, involving looking at multiple little dots on the screen until they explode, helping you brush up on you telekinetic powers, and thereby assuring that no one at CES will mess with you, what with your newfound ability to blow things up with your mind.
When the system recognizes your eyes, you'll see two white spots floating in the dark, like Bugs Bunny after the lights go
Before Assassin's Creed Syndicate, the Tobii rep took me through a Grand Theft Auto demo. I'm not complaining. The game perfectly illustrates the technology's gaming potential. Look around the screen and the camera shifts with you, not entirely unlike the experience you have looking around in a VR helmet.
And targeting a person or vehicle with the gun is as simple as looking at them. Granted, I hadn't played a GTA game in some time, but the eye-tracking functionality really knocks the whole thing up a notch.
The effect is similar in the new Assassin's Creed title (albeit with arrows and carriages in the place of missile launchers and cop cars). Aiming is as easy as looking at it. The ability to shift the camera is quite handy when hijacking a carriage. Glancing ahead at a corner before making a sharp turn helped me avoid running over a few old ladies (though I suppose the perceived benefit there really depends on what you're going for in the game),
Great features, all of them, but the Swedish company's gone a bit deeper here than pure action sequences. One of the first elements the rep showed me was Dynamic Light, a subtle feature that simulates the eye's adjustment to dark and light settings. Walk into a cave and the dark space will slowly become brighter as the computer's eyes adjust, mimicking the real effect on the pupil.
The demo was, perhaps, overshadowed in a week that was dominated by VR headsets, where the line for Oculus seemed to wrap around the booth several times. But it's impressive nonetheless, demonstrating the effect that seemingly small elements like camera pans and lighting shifts can have on an existing title.
And it's liberating, really, to feel the shift away from increasingly complex controller interfaces to a truly natural form of interfacing with a game. And that naturalness is precisely what makes it work so well. Tobii doesn't attempt to use eye-tracking to manipulate as aspect of the game.
After a few minutes with two titles, it feels like Tobii is really onto something here — and it's just getting started.