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Umoove Says Face and Eye Tracking Will Change Mobile Games, Ads and More

A demo of the Israeli company's technology, released today, turns your head into a game controller.

CC BY 2.0 Flickr user _StaR_DusT_

“It’s sort of like adding another sensor into the phone.”

That’s how Umoove CEO and CTO Yitzi Kempinski described his company’s face- and eye-tracking technology for mobile devices in an interview with Re/code. Starting today, the Israeli company is moving to get it in front of a mass market, with a free game that turns players’ heads into the controller.

When users set up Umoove Experience, which is free for iPhones and iPads, they’re prompted to make their faces visible to the iDevices’ front-facing camera. Then, after some quick practice, they assume the role of a person flying around a small village, collecting magical-looking purple bottles. Touching the screen and turning the device do nothing; only gentle head movements can guide the flight.

It’s a simple game, with only one level, but Umoove isn’t trying to climb the App Store charts. Rather, it wants to show mobile developers what’s possible with this sort of tracking technology, in the hope of spurring its usage. Kempinski said the company is already working with “seven or eight” outside game developers, with the first real Umoove-powered games tentatively planned for release next month.

The software development kit that makes all this possible is available free through the company, but Umoove isn’t letting just anyone download it. Prospective developers must apply to get access to the SDK, and Kempinski said that the company has turned away many previous applicants for their lackluster ideas.

“People don’t get it yet,” he said.

He stressed that mobile tracking is not just about controlling games, but could also be used in app quality assurance testing, medical applications — using eye tracking to diagnose certain illnesses from afar — and even advertising. Knowing where users are looking and what their eyes are doing during a mobile ad, Kempinski explained, indicates how interested they are.

“In the future, there’s going to be a platform where you can upload video and see, for every second, how engaged people are,” he said. “Making any visual content effective is extremely valuable.”

Some OEMs have expressed interest in integrating Umoove into future devices, he noted, but one of the company’s selling points is that it works on anything with a front-facing camera. Which, of course, raises the privacy question: If face- and eye-tracking can be anywhere, what’s to stop it from being used without a person’s consent?

Kempinski answered this concern in three ways: First, by noting that any capturing of a person’s face or behavior does not leave the phone or tablet by default, and that tracking data sent later would be anonymized. He also indicated that ad and video engagement testing would look more like the heavily funded uTest, with only a fraction of users knowingly being tracked.

“We’re not interested in doing this behind the scenes,” he said. “We’re not planning on turning on someone’s camera without anyone knowing. … It’s statistics. You don’t need everyone.”

Finally, he left the door ajar for this sort of tracking to become opt-in for non-advertising related apps, via a permissions box presented to users. And he said he expects tracking to become normalized over time.

“It’s something we’re extremely aware of, is the privacy issue,” Kempinski said. “But we got used to sending location data. The same thing is happening here.”

Umoove will make an initial foray into tracking-based analytics in the next two to three months, he said.

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