Intel is betting big on the future of human interfaces with a $21 million (143 million kronor) investment in Tobii, a Swedish company that has been working for years on eye-tracking laptops and other devices. A 10% stake, it implies a valuation of around $200 million for the 12-year-old company. In 2007 Tobii raised $14M, then in 2009 another $26.8M, and the $21M from Intel Capital continues that trend of steady R&D funding.
The news, announced by co-founder and VP John Elvesjö and reported by Computer Sweden, comes on the heels of Tobii’s newest eye-tracking device, which was announced a week ago at CeBit. The timing probably isn’t a coincidence.
Elvesjö noted that their plan was always to test at small scale in laptops and then expand into larger markets: cars, for instance, or perhaps mobile phones.
Intel is a leader in desktop computing and servers, but it has been taken by surprise in recent years by rival ARM, which now dominates the embedded and mobile space. Eye-tracking is a potentially influential feature that could grow in value especially in the personal and ubiquitous device areas, and Intel probably hopes to secure a functional advantage by integrating next-generation interface technologies. Tobii technology has already been demonstrated controlling Windows 8 via eye-tracking, and Intel is certainly highly invested in the future of that OS.
Tobii is not yet profitable, which is to be expected in an R&D-heavy company building out a product on venture investments. 2010 saw a ~$3.5M loss (other earnings haven’t been reported), but if Intel’s valuation is any indication, that kind of spending is perfectly healthy.
The new model of eye-tracker is smaller, cheaper, better, and draws less power than its predecessor. Their products have historically been quite expensive, but they hope that this new, more easily embeddable device will allow the technology to spread downwards towards consumer devices.