Using VR and eye tracking in healthcare applications

  • by Johan Bouvin
  • 7 min

Man wearing a VR headset in a hospital bed

Today, various innovative companies in many different fields leverage the power of extended reality (XR) and eye tracking, which has caused other developers and software companies to be curious about the benefits of combining these two technologies. To share the successes of those who have been using this methodology for some time, we are launching this spark series of blog posts. While we will be highlighting many different examples in various applications, this first post focuses on the healthcare use case. We will look at the convergence of VR and eye tracking, the benefits for the healthcare industry, and some of the tools you can leverage to accelerate your innovation — like the Tobii XR SDK. 

VR has had several ups and downs over the last couple of decades. However, in 2020, consumers bought over one million VR headsets in a single quarter, and corporations such as Walmart have deployed tens of thousands of headsets to train their store personnel. VR headsets are sophisticated devices, and the high-end models, such as the Pico Neo 2 Eye and the HP Reverb G2 Omnicept Edition, feature advanced biometric sensors. These innovations are helping the healthcare industry make strides in research and commercial endeavors. 

Historical advances in science  

The healthcare industry has a history of introducing technology to support the diagnosis of various conditions. In 1945, the Goldmann perimetry test — a mechanical system mapping the human vision field — was introduced. In the 1980s, as computing became more pervasive, manual perimetry tests became digitized and the Humphrey visual field analyzer became commonplace in clinics.  

Patient view Goldmann perimeter
Goldmann manual perimeter 

As computers become ever more powerful, with smartphones bringing mobility, and improved sensor technology, healthcare continues its innovation journey. In 2021, eye tracking is now a key component in major VR headsets intended for commercial applications, some of which also include pulse meters, face cameras, and (soon) brain-computer interfaces. Advanced analytical toolkits available for these headsets, such as Tobii Ocumen, enable healthcare companies to leverage the mobility of VR to scale their businesses. 

One company that has done this recently is SyncThink. Their EYE-SYNC® technology is a brain health and performance platform that provides objective data and insights about various neurological conditions. SyncThink is partnering with Pico and Tobii to use Tobii Ocumen on the Pico Neo 2 Eye, bringing their solution to even broader user groups than before. I believe that we will soon see these instant brain injury assessment aids on the sidelines of major sporting events, as well as in high-school athletics departments. These kinds of developments, ensure that the race is on for developers of healthcare solutions to harness the latest technology first and get new products to market quickly. 

Eye Sync
SyncThink's EYE-SYNC® product solution

The future of VR, eye tracking, and healthcare

In my view, expanding healthcare solutions into VR provides unique benefits thanks to the three key capabilities of the VR headsets of today. Firstly, like any computerized solution, VR provides an environment for controlled and repeatable testing. Secondly, much like smartphones, VR is becoming more portable and affordable. Finally, VR headsets now operate more in tune with the vision system of the user. They are inherently stereoscopic since they produce separate images for the left and right eye, and sensor capabilities allow for close observation and measurement of ocular behavior and biomarkers.

For anyone assessing cognitive or neurological conditions, this means that there is now a controllable and portable platform available for their work. Such a platform allows the user to present highly realistic, stereoscopic stimuli in 3D space and measure patient ocular biomarkers, which are indicators of many conditions such as Parkinson’s, autism, traumatic brain injury (TBI). With these strides in technology, wellbeing and fitness solutions can incorporate applications that measure and evaluate cognitive health with an aim to prevent brain degeneration. A great example of these neurological assessment capabilities combining the power of eye tracking and VR is the innovative work Apeiron Life and REACT Neuro are doing in California.

Practical application

Like any platform, VR will need to provide a technical solution proven through scientific experiments and solid experience to be considered a reliable basis for healthcare applications. In the case of the eye tracking being integrated into VR headsets today, luckily, this isn’t a new concept. Tobii’s eye tracking solutions for VR are direct successors of the solutions Tobii has successfully produced for decades —  solutions used by thousands of researchers worldwide. This tried-and-true technology is used daily to conduct research with tools such as our
wearable eye tracker, providing researchers with continuity in an ever-changing hardware landscape.

Also, Tobii brings decades of experience in eye tracking into easy-to-use SDKs and developer tools. These SDKs supply cross-platform access to eye tracking related data and functionality, helping developers shorten their time to market and increasing scalability among devices. This becomes important over time when the market life of many headsets is much shorter than healthcare applications ideally look for. Tobii Ocumen is the result of this agile development method — it’s our advanced eye tracking for healthcare, wellness, and other demanding applications. It can be accessed through an extension to the Tobii XR SDK and is compatible with several of the major devices already integrating Tobii eye tracking.

Tobii Ocumen graphs

In application areas with a strong scientific profile, such as healthcare, full control of the data flow is important from a research and regulatory standpoint. However, it is also important to have certain capabilities to help accelerate development and bring products to market faster. So, the premade tools, filters, and data analysis components have become valuable, as long as they are fully transparent in their functionality. Tobii is closely connected with research communities that analyze eye movement and define the standards for filtering gaze data. So, we have created a comprehensive filter library as part of Tobii Ocumen. Right out of the gate, developers and data scientists get a broad portfolio of standardized eye movement classifiers, such as target acquisition, target tracking, nystagmus, pupil dilation, and saccadic intrusion. These are the basic building blocks needed to create robust analytical models for various conditions. Much of this work is published in peer-reviewed literature, and users of Tobii Ocumen can be certain that they have full control of the data pipeline. 

In commercial applications, the transition from research and data science into deploying a clinical product also becomes a crucial step for solution providers. How can a chief science officer ensure that the methodology and analytical models from the data science team are accurately and reliably implemented by the development team? In the case of eye tracking, Tobii Ocumen provides a data analysis framework that allows data scientists to package their data filtering from the lab into components that can be easily and reliably integrated into software solutions. This way, the analytical modules are constant, and the data science team can be certain that whatever they work with in the lab behaves the same way once deployed into the end product.  

Making this technology accessible 

Tobii is enabling these advances in technology by partnering with OEMs to deliver eye tracking tools refined by real researchers for over two decades. And, by providing scientific developer toolkits to connect data scientists with their developers, our team at Tobii is helping to close the development circle in advanced healthcare applications. This all helps companies make reliable product iterations at prototype speeds. 

Contact our team to learn more about using our SDK in your advanced healthcare solutions with eye tracking. You can also download Tobii XR SDK to start developing today. 

Written by

  • Johan Bouvin

    Johan Bouvin

    Director of product — XR software and ecosystem at Tobii

    Hi, I work with tons of developers from all over, hoping to gain an understanding of how their eye tracking needs are evolving. My aim is to ensure that we continue to develop our SDKs, developer tools, and XR platform to align with the rapidly expanding needs of the industry. I collaborate with amazing people in different lines of work. I find the more varied the individuals, the more interesting the results.

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