The Three (and a half) Configurations of Eye Trackers

Eye tracking could become a critical sensor in HMDs. In previous posts such as here, here and here we discussed some of the ways that eye trackers could be useful as input devices, as ways to reduce rendering load and more.

But how are eye trackers installed inside an HMD? An appropriate placement of the eye tracking camera gives a quality image of the eye regardless of the gaze direction. If the eye image is bad, the tracking quality will be bad. It’s truly a ‘garbage in, garbage out’ situation.

The three typical ways to install a camera are:

  1. Underneath the optics
  2. Combined with the optics via a hot mirror (or an internal reflection)
  3. Inside the optics.

In this post, we describe these configurations.

Underneath the optics

This configuration is illustrated in the image on the right, which shows the Sensics zSight HMD with an integrated Ergoneers eye tracker. The tracker is the small camera that is visible underneath the left eyepiece.

The angle in which the camera is installed is important. A camera that is perpendicular – practically looking into the eye – will typically get an excellent image.  If the camera angle is steep, the anatomy of the eye – eyelids, eyelashes, inset eyes – gets in the way of getting a good image.

If the eye relief (distance from cornea to first element of the optics) is small, the camera will need to be placed at a steeper angle than if the eye relief was large. If the diameter of the optics are large, the camera would need to be placed lower and thus at a steeper angle than if the diameter of the optics is smaller.

If the user wears glasses, an eye tracker that is placed underneath the optics might “see” the frame of the glasses instead of the eye.

Having said that, the advantage of this approach is that it does not place many constraints on the optics. Eye tracker cameras could usually be added below optics that were not designed to accommodate eye tracking.

Eye tracker that is combined with the optics

Eye tracking cameras are often infra-red cameras that look at IR light that is reflected off the eye. As such, eye tracking cameras don’t need visible light. This allows using what is called a hot mirror: a mirror that reflects IR light yet passes visible light.

Consider the optical system shown to the right (copyright Sensics). Light from the screen (right side) passes through a lens, a hot mirror and another lens and reaches the eye. In contrast, if the eye is lit by an IR light source, IR light coming back from the eye is reflected off the hot mirror towards the upper part of the optical system. If a camera is placed there, it can have an excellent view of the eye without interfering with the optical quality.

This configuration also gives more flexibility with regards to the camera being used. For instance, a larger camera (perhaps with very high frame rate) would not be feasible if placed under the optics. However, when placed separately from the optical system such as above the mirror, it might fit.

The downside of this configuration, other than the need to add the hot mirror, is that the optical system needs to leave enough room for the hot mirror and this introduces a mechanical constraint that limits the options of the optical designer.

A variation on this design (what I referred in the title as “the half” configuration is having the IR light reflect off one of the optical surfaces, assuming this surface is coated with an IR-reflective coating.  You can see this in the configuration on the right (also copyright Sensics). An optical element is curved and the IR light reflects off it into the camera. The image received by the camera might be somewhat distorted, but since that image is processed by an algorithm, that algorithm could compensate for the image distortion.

This solution removes the need for a hot mirror but does require that there is a lens that is shaped in a way to reflect the IR light into the camera. It also requires the additional expense of an IR coating.

Eye tracker integrated with the optics

The third configuration is even simpler. A miniature camera is used. A small hole is drilled through the optics and the camera is placed through it. The angle and location of the camera is balanced between getting an optical image of the eye and the need to not introduce a significant visual distraction.

This is shown on the right as part of the eye tracking option of the Sensics dSight. This configuration gives excellent flexibility with regards to camera placement, but does introduce some visual distraction and requires careful drilling of a hole through the optics.

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