Apple Buys Eye-Tracking Company For AR

Apple Buys Eye-Tracking Company For AR
June 27, 2017



Apple buys German eye-tracking firm SensoMotoric Instruments.

Apple and Waymo turn to rental agencies for fleet management.

Western Digital balks over Toshiba memory deal.

Rethink Technology business briefs for June 26, 2017.


Apple buys German eye-tracking firm SensoMotoric Instruments


MacRumors uncovered the acquisition of SensoMotoric Instruments [SMI] by an Apple (AAPL) “shell company” Vineyard Capital Corporation. Apple uses such companies to conceal its acquisitions, but this time MacRumors spotted the signature of Apple's VP of Corporate Law, Gene Levoff, on a document involved with the transaction.


SMI has developed eye-tracking technology for a variety of applications, including clinical research, vision science, and virtual and augmented reality. Almost certainly, it's the VR/AR applications that interest Apple.


SMI has developed glasses with built-in eye-tracking sensors (shown above) as well as installed its sensors into VR headsets. In AR/VR, there are two basic uses for eye tracking. First, eye tracking can be used to control a pointing indicator such as a cursor or spot. Thus, it affords the user “hands free” pointing and selection capability.


The other use is for what's called foveated rendering, in which only the region that the subject is looking at is rendered with full detail. This can reduce the processing load on the VR/AR device and allow for higher frame rates. This is why the reader might have heard or read that SMI's technology can “reduce nausea” which can occur if there is motion lag.


Foveated rendering works because the human eye only allows you to see clearly near the center of your field of view, where the fovea is located. As long as the imaging system knows where the user is looking and can render that region clearly, the rest of the image can be less detailed and the user won't notice.


Apparently, Apple has decided that it needs eye tracking for its future augmented reality systems. These can take various forms. As we've already seen as of WWDC, an iPhone or iPad can be converted into an augmented reality device. However, the most likely next step for Apple is AR capable “smartglasses.”


In March I discussed Apple's efforts in AR and smartglasses, and subsequent events only serve to confirm that a product is in the works. Although one can do AR through an iPad, the experience becomes much more immersive through smartglasses.


In addition to AR, smartglasses can provide a subjectively large HD screen experience in a pocketable mobile device. This overcomes a fundamental limitation in screen size for smartphones. Most likely, Apple's smartglasses will serve as an external display device for an iPhone, iPad or Mac and will connect wirelessly over Wi-Fi via the AirPlay protocol.


Thus, like the Apple Watch, Apple Glasses (or whatever they're called) will depend on tethering to an iOS or macOS device. This will allow them to be light, compact and relatively low-cost compared to standalone systems such as Microsoft's (MSFT) Hololens.


Consumers probably have at least a year or two to wait before Apple Glasses hit the market.


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Apple and Waymo turn to rental agencies for fleet management


The Lexus RX450h SUVs that have been spotted testing Apple's self-driving systems apparently are leased from Hertz (NYSE:HTZ), according to a reportin Bloomberg. This comes on the heels of a report that Alphabet's (GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) Waymo had hired Avis to manage its fleet of autonomous vehicles in Phoenix, Arizona.


Both companies have the money to buy and service as many cars as they could possibly use, so why involve the rental car companies? Probably because these fleets are going to get very large. In the past few years, we've seen the approach to autonomous vehicles shift from deterministic programs to machine learning. Machine learning requires extensive “training” of the AI, and this process can be accelerated by training a large fleet of vehicles.


The logistics of managing and maintaining those fleets are best left to the companies with the experience and facilities for it, and that's the rental car companies. So the partnerships are very natural.


Western Digital balks over Toshiba memory deal


Last week, it seemed as though matters were finally settled in the Toshiba (OTCPK:TOSBF) memory business sale. Toshiba had awarded the unit to a consortium led by the Japanese government, with funding from Bain Capital.


Seemingly out of the running was a group led by Foxconn (OTC:FXCOF) (Hon Hai Precision Industries) that included Apple as well as another group led by Broadcom (AVGO). Also excluded was Western Digital (WDC) that had objected to the sale based on its part ownership of a Toshiba plant in Japan.


WDC once again has voiced objections to the sale, because the winning consortium includes SK Hynix (OTC:HXSCF) (OTC:HXSCL) of South Korea. WDC contends that trade secrets from the jointly operated facility could leak to its Korean rival.


The participation of SK Hynix is mostly monetary and affords little influence, so the concerns of WDC are probably overblown. But WDC had wanted in on the Japanese-led consortium and was rejected by Toshiba.


WDC is threatening further legal action should the deal go forward. Toshiba is under some pressure to get the transaction wrapped up this fiscal year in order to make up for losses at its Westinghouse nuclear plant subsidiary.


To avoid further delays, Toshiba could well open the door to a minority stake by WDC, essentially replacing the $3.8 billion that SK Hynix would have provided.


Disclosure: I am/we are long AAPL.


I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.

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