Umoove is a mobile-focused Israeli startup that plays in the eye- and face-tracking space. It’s a nascent area of tech development, with smartphone maker Samsung adding a basic eye-tracking feature to its Galaxy S4 flagship device last year (aka Smart Scroll). While a head-tracking patent filing reported earlier this month suggests there’s more to come in the next iteration of Samsung’s flagship smartphone.
Reports have also attached Amazon to an interest in building an eye-tracking mobile interface — to stick on a phone it might also be building — which watches to see where the user is looking (and then presumably uses that to power recommendations for more relevant stuff you might want to buy).
As a space, camera-based tracking tech on mobile is certainly hotting up — which is good news for Umoove. Umoove’s system is designed to utilise the front-facing camera on any smartphone to figure out where a person is looking. While the tech underpinning the startup has been in development for almost four years, it’s just today launched an (iOS) app showcasing one example of a face-tracking interface — which takes the form of a game that lets users steer a flying avatar through a 3D landscape by moving their head (screengrab shown above).
Umoove is not looking to replace touchscreen interfaces with nods and head shakes. It tells TechCrunch it views eye-/face-tracking as supplementary to existing touch-based interfaces — as a way to augment touch with additional, potentially more immersive functionality, rather than as a wholesale replacement controlling mechanism.
“We’re talking about adding another layer on top of touching, similar to what the mouse did with the keyboard — they didn’t throw out the keyboard, it actually added suddenly the ability to have another layer of interaction, so it’s the same sort of thing here,” says CEO Yitzi Kempinski.
“It’s supposed to be something that mimics real-world experience. I’ll give you an example… if you think of a first-person shooter, those games you play and you have to shoot, and then you have the joystick to move around and you have to drag the screen to move around the room. Basically what we do is simple: based on where you face that’s where you’re aiming.”
The business opportunity here, for Umoove, is also not to sell games — its first iOS app game effort is free to download, as you’d expect for what is really just a tech demo designed to show developers what the tech can do. And start to get users used to the concept of controlling stuff with their head — which is not as intuitive as touch and certainly involves a learning curve, at least, if not a bit of initial neck-ache.
Umoove is not charging indie developers to use its SDK to add a face-tracking interface to their own games, although Kempinski says it is being selective about who gets to use it. Its business model is down the line — i.e. if it can sell the concept of a new interface layer that augments touch to enough users and other companies.
Applications for its face-tracking tech beyond gaming could include ecommerce use-cases, says Kempinski – by, for instance, giving users the ability to view products in 3D from different angles by moving their head. He also says it’s talking to OEMs (he won’t name names) about adding the tech into future devices.
The eye-tracking component of Umoove’s technology is something with perhaps even more obvious revenue-generating potential, with opportunities to partner with marketing/advertising companies and furnish them with the ability to track what mobile users are looking at — or even quantify how engaged they are by particular content. Other scenarios he mentions include diagnostic medical use-cases for doctors or opticians, or applications in the security space.
“We have one main partnership that we’ve done [in the advertising space] and we have a pilot… with some big brands that we’re going to start in a few months. But there we’re basically building a platform — that’s one of the main focuses now, from a product perspective, is this whole ‘user interest analysis’,” he adds.
The applications for Umoove’s layer — or any similar tracking techs built for mobile by rivals — will doubtless come in time, assuming users can be convinced that it’s useful to move digital stuff around with (gentle) head movements.
And — crucially — not too creepy to have something in their pocket that’s actively watching and assessing them. If you think the increasingly pervasive nature of technology is danger of feeling a bit creepy now, following NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s dragnet surveillance revelations about how the security services are doing a deep-dive into everyone’s digital lives, there’s little doubt the increasingly voyeuristic devices and services we use are going to be using in future will feel a whole lot more invasive — as tracking technologies continue to evolve to divulge more of the secrets of their users.
Umoove has raised around $3 million in total funding to date (a $1.5 million seed round, and a freshly closed <$1.5 million Angel round from undisclosed investors). As mentioned before, it has developed its eye- and face-tracking tech to work with non-specialist hardware. So there’s no infrared camera required to shine a reference point on the user’s eyeball (as with some other eye-tracking systems). Instead it tracks eye movement by also taking face position into account.
“The technologies are very much connected,” says Kempinski. “The key to good eye-tracking is very good face-tracking.”
By face-tracking it’s referring to the location of the head, rather than to facial expressions (which it doesn’t currently monitor — not least because on mobile the front-facing camera isn’t always in a position to see all of the user’s face, and may only have a partial quarter view of their head).
As well as working with non-specialist hardware, Kempinski says the software been designed to function in the variable everyday lighting conditions where phones might be in use — arguing that this gives it an advantage over competitors (such as Tobii) that are trying to transfer tracking systems built for desktops or other hardware over to mobiles.
Incidentally, Kempinski pours cold water on the concept of using eye movements alone as a controlling mechanism for consumer electronics, as in the case of Samsung’s relatively poorly-reviewed eye-tracking scroll tech. He points out that people make a lot of involuntary eye movements, which can confuse such systems, and also that there’s no clear way to separate a controlling eye gesture from a user simply moving their eyes over a piece of content that they want to read or look at.
Hence the need to track both the eye and the face, and to think carefully about where best to apply this sort of interface. ”Every day we’re getting requests [to use the SDK] and a lot of it is just not thought out enough — they haven’t really understood what should be done and could be done with it,” says Kempinski. “And that’s one of the reasons why having something out there [i.e. Umoove's own demo game] really helps because they can feel it. And once they’ve felt it and touched it it’s much easier to grasp what you can do with it.”