Eye tracking isn't VR tech for 2017. That's the standard conversation point for anyone in the industry, Fove included. So why is Fove making an eye-tracking VR headset? To get there first, and help developers explore the ideas, according to Fove's Jim Preston, who guided me through a demo in a busy CES preshow event.
The Fove 0 isn't as polished a VR headset as the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive. Tucked into a booth among rows of other CES gadgets, it blended in and looked generic. But its biggest achievement lurks under the hood: its unique rings of eye-tracking sensors. There are two arrays of six IR sensors plus one infrared camera in each eye.
The headset didn't fit my face when I tried it: Fove 0 won't work for a good many glasses-wearers. As a result, my whole demo was done in severely myopic conditions. I couldn't vet the VR quality, sadly, but I could measure how well it handled eye-tracking. It was about as good as the Eyefluence demo I tried last year, back before Eyefluence was bought by Google.
What is eye tracking good for? Lots of things, actually. One demo, demonstrating what's called "foveated rendering," was able to focus in more detail on objects I was looking at, mirroring how the eye actually sees (and saving on graphics processing). Eye tracking can also be used to control games and interfaces more accurately. A shooting game blasted little flying things when I looked at them, and the blasts leaped across the screen as my eyes flitted.
Fove also aims to explore how VR can handle diagnosing medical conditions that can be identified by eye behaviors, and to be a tool for marketers. A third demo placed me in a virtual store, and tracked the heat maps of where my eyes looked. It turns out I like balconies and giant statues.
Setting up Fove 0 involved a bit of calibration as it scanned my eyes. Even then, though, the eye-tracking had occasional hiccups. And the Fove 0 was a lot less comfortable than other headsets I've worn.
At $600 (about £490 or AU$825), this early-adopter Fove 0 is a hint at where VR will be, possibly as soon as 2018. Eye-tracking companies have been hot commodities lately, with Eyefluence acquired by Google and The Eye Tribe snapped up by Facebook. Maybe Fove will be next.