Does the new iPhone feature Israeli start-up’s eye-tracking tech?

uMoove, leading the field in enabling devices to respond to movements of the user’s eyes and face, is rumored to star in Apple’s next big thing

uMoove technology at work (photo credit: YouTube)
uMoove technology at work (photo credit: YouTube)

Whenever rumors about new iPhones abound, they tend to focus on what tech advances those phones will include. The latest spate of (persistent) rumors on an upcoming Apple release feature technology developed by an Israeli company, uMoove, which allows devices to respond to the movement of a user’s eyes and face.

Called eye-tracking, the technology is already available to an extent in Samsung’s Galaxy S4 device. With the S4, users can pause a video by looking away from the screen while it’s playing. The phone “knows” when to pause playback because of the eye-tracking technology built into it; if the front-facing camera detects that a user’s eyes have moved, the video stops playback.

Start-up uMoove’s technology, detecting eye movements and “gentle head movements” to control apps and phone functions, is far more ambitious, and its API (application programming interface) is open to all phone manufacturers and app developers. For a while there were rumors that uMoove was the company supplying the Samsung device with its movement technology, but those seem to have died down since the S4 was released last spring.

In practice, the video-stopping feature is only a very basic use of eye and head tracking — something uMoove would like to see as a standard feature on many phones, and employed by many apps, company officials said in interviews last March. To that end, the company developed a toolkit for developers, which has been in closed beta for several months. Although the company has not said who is using the toolbox or what they are using it for, it is supposed to be a lot more robust and capable than that which Samsung has already offered.

Given the rivalry between Apple and Samsung, and the fact that Apple has been losing market share (and even worse, stock value), the company is likely to be more aggressive in rolling out new features in its upcoming device. So when reports started emerging last week about leaked photos and images of a new iPhone — there were several versions on several sites, all apparently pulled — along came a tidal wave of speculation about possible features.

When it comes to Apple, it’s best to remember the old adage, “Those who know don’t tell and those who tell don’t know,” but it’s pretty clear that the company will have to one-up Samsung with its next release. And that means doing whatever Samsung does, only better.

uMoove is said to have the most advanced eye- and head-tracking technology around; the company has been working on it for the past three years. Among the things uMoove can do, based on interviews with company executives, is provide variable speed scrolling speeds; a zoom function activated by head movements; control and selection of items by tracking eye movements on the screen; navigation; oh, and the video pausing trick, as well.

According to cofounder Moti Krispil, the company’s technology — all software-based — works in bright and dark rooms and is very sensitive. However, according to him, the technology is also able to filter out natural body movements in order to detect false-positive movement, i.e., if you quickly jerk your head in response to a fly buzzing around your head, uMoove-equipped apps will not respond, as the system “knows” that your head movement was not intended to impact the app. uMoove even works when a user is wearing sunglasses, Krispil said in interviews.

It’s possible that Apple is developing similar tech in-house to that of uMoove, but with the company in a hurry to compete with Samsung on the sales front, and with Apple now having experience in working with Israeli start-ups, it certainly seems plausible that the Israeli technology will show up on the upcoming iPhone.

Commenting on the rumors, uMoove CEO Yitzi Kempinski said that “many leading vendors have expressed interest in integrating our unique mobile face- and eye-tracking technology, but we are unable to disclose more information at this time.

“What is really exciting about uMoove’s technology is that it can actually run on any device without OS level integration. So your iPhone, iPad, or even iPod touch that you already own, with a simple app store download, will be able to display futuristic face and eye interaction capabilities. This will be available to all in the near future,” Kempinski added.

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