When it comes to gaming input, everything is pretty much the same. Whether you use a controller, a mouse, or even a VR headset the principles are that you have to move your hands (or head) to direct some sort of cursor. It's been like this since the beginning, and even though many things have changed, that basic level of input hasn't. But what if there was a new and exciting way? A way that lets you aim in the laziest way possible: by using your eyes.
Eye tracking is nothing new, but ask anyone who's heard of it and they'll generally think about next-gen VR headsets that keep tabs on where you're looking and react accordingly. Alienware has taken a different approach the past couple of years, with TObii eye tracking built into some of its gaming laptops. One such laptop, the latest iteration of the Alienware 17, was on show at IFA and I was able to take the tech for a spin. It was, without a doubt, one of the freakiest gaming experiences of my life.
The weird thing about this tech is that it isn't all that new. Eye tracking was first added to the Alienware 17 two years ago, but there didn't seem to be a huge fanfare attached — or at the very least much news in the time since. But Gamescom was last week, which saw the company announce the Alienware Academy tool that's been built to help gamers improve their performance in compatible games. Eye tracking is a part of AW Academy's analytical toolset, so it's back in the news and the company seemed eager to show it off.
So I went through the demo and shot down a bunch of asteroids, directing the shots with my eyes.
It was a pretty simple experience, which I suppose was the point. The eye-tracking bar at the bottom of the display uses infra red to track your eyes, and only took about a minute of calibration before I could get started. If you've ever calibrated the cursor in a first person shooter (the original Halo comes to mind), then you'll be familiar with what this involves. Look at some dots on-screen, hold your gaze for half a second, and continue. Then you get to sit in a space ship and shoot some space rocks.
The great thing about the tracking was that it was virtually lag free, and felt reasonably accurate. A single glance was enough for the demo to lock onto the next asteroid, though it was important to make sure your eyes didn't wander before firing off a missile. There were no severe consequences, but it did cause you to lose your target and look fairly silly in the process.
It's hard to describe how weird the whole thing was, because the only movement I made was the occasional turn of my head to get a better view of the ship's peripherals. Everything else was done by shifting my eyes around and slapping the space bar to fire off the new rock-busting missile. It was probably down to the fact there was so little going on, and I'm too used to shifting around analogue sticks with my hands that its absence was very noticeable. There also wasn't much else going on in the demo, which didn't help.
Because Tobii's eye tracking has been around for a while, there are already 131 games available with various levels of eye-tracking integration for you to enjoy. Far Cry 5, for instance, promises dynamic lighting, enemy tagging, extended views, and the option to aim using your eyes. So plenty of extra immersion, and without having to burden yourself with a headset for long periods of time. There are also the added benefits for accessibility here as well. For those who can't use a traditional controller or mouse-based setup, having the option to aim with their eyes has the potential to be hugely beneficial. It doesn't seem to be a completely hands-off experience just yet, but it's progress.
The bad news here is that the eye-tracking systems are optional extras for the Alienware 17, which currently comes with a £1,449 starting price. So it's certainly not very cheap. Then again neither is VR or any of the other cool stuff PC gaming has to offer...