Apple's attempts to hide the development of secret new products by using shell companies usually works, but some clever sleuthing by one site has revealed what may be a key component of Apple's future with augmented reality.
Documents have been uncovered by MacRumors that indicate Apple has quietly acquired eye-tracking company SensoMotoric Instruments. In addition to tracking down acquisition documents linked to Apple attorney Gene Levoff, the site also spoke to an anonymous tipster in contact with an Apple employee who confirmed the acquisition.
The famously secretive company almost never comments on such acquisitions, but now that we have clear links between SensoMotoric and Apple, the next question is: What does this all mean?
A number of clues can be found in archived versions of the SensoMotoric site (which had some information removed recently). What immediately stands out is the fact that SensoMotoric touts its eye-tracking technology as a means to conduct ad testing (to see what draws a consumer's eye), "virtual reality marketing," and "neuromarketing." In the realm of virtual reality, SensoMotoric has worked in the past to develop custom eye-tracking solutions for the Oculus Rift DK2, the Samsung Gear VR, and the HTC Vive.
None of the leading VR headsets include eye-tracking as a standard feature yet, but the technology is viewed as the next big development in VR, right alongside inside-out tracking on tetherless headsets.
But Apple CEO Tim Cook has already gone on record regarding AR being the focus at Apple over VR. Therefore, the most intriguing aspect of SensoMotoric relates to what it might do for Apple's rapid entry into AR with tools like ARKit. Perhaps SensoMotoric's eye-tracking technology could be used to help users interact with and even manipulate AR environments and virtual objects.
One SensoMotoric video (above) shows a tennis player wearing a pair of specialized glasses that track where the player is looking in real time. Similarly, another image on the SensoMotoric site shows a user wearing similar glasses as she reads the information on the back of a cereal box (see top image). This connection to SensoMotoric and its eye-tracking could be what led to recent rumors around Apple possibly developing its own AR glasses.
And while "Apple Glasses" or "iGlasses" may become a reality in the future, in the near term, it seems far more likely that Apple will attempt to somehow use SensoMotoric's technology in concert with the iPhone and its ARKit-friendly platform. Also, giving brands a means to directly track user engagement in AR with eye-tracking (the holy grail of advertising) could result in a rush of AR apps from major brands, in addition to independent AR app developers.
Another possibility could be Apple employing the eye-tracking technology in cars in conjunction with CarPlay.
An in-car demonstration (above) of SensoMotoric's glasses at work indicate that they might be useful for cutting down on distracted driving via real time warnings (if, for example, you're looking in the wrong direction while speeding toward an obstacle) or as a visual interface for CarPlay, letting you use your eyes to enable various functions, instead of looking away from the road to view the touchscreen or using Siri for voice commands (which can be challenging in noisy situations).
Of course, these are all just guesses until Apple decides to reveal what it has planned for its eye-tracking acquisition. In the meantime, we can expect to see a series of concept designs for Apple smart glasses crop up as Apple fans hope to see the company add another piece to its wearables division.