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Exclusive: Fove's VR HMD At CES 2016, First Look

During CES 2016, Tom’s Hardware managed to get an exclusive look at Fove Inc.’s eye tracking VR headset. Fove wasn't going to be demonstrating anything new to the press, or the public, but the company CTO, Lockliam Wilson, agreed to give us a quick look.

New Hardware Revision Soon

On day one of CES, I met with Wilson, and he showed me an alpha version of the Fove dev kit so that I could get some perspective on what kind of benefits eye tracking would have in a VR HMD. The hardware he showed me is actually an old revision from six months ago, and the software is just as old. A new version of the kit and software will be ready in the coming months, but Fove isn’t ready to show that hardware just yet. Therefore, the below is a look at something a ways off from a final build. Even so, I found it compelling.

There are a number of VR headsets in development, but Fove sticks out from the crowd by including eye-tracking sensors. Fove isn’t partnering with an existing vendor for its eye-tracking components, though. The company has opted to develop its own proprietary hardware in-house, rather than use already available technology. Wilson didn’t go into detail explaining the benefits of Fove's sensors, but by creating its own, the company has full control of the design, which affords the Fove team the ability to fine tune as they see fit. 

Intuitive Extra Input Axis

Fove’s use of eye tracking is beneficial in that in addition to having head tracking, eye tracking allows you to decouple the cursor from your head movement. Imagine trying to navigate menus from a game in VR: You have to pan your head up and down and side to side to get around the menus. With the Fove HMD, navigating menus is as simple as gazing at the item you want to access. The cameras inside the headset track the movements of your pupils to gauge where you are looking. Eye tracking can also be used for aiming. Rather than panning your head around to lock your cursor on a target, you can just look at what you want to attack, and the cursor will follow.

Wilson had me put the headset on and try out a quick tech demo. Before playing anything, the eye trackers need to be calibrated. The calibration test is a simple process that takes only a few seconds. A green dot will appear in an area of the screen, and you have to gaze at it. When the sensor detects that you’re looking at it, the cursor will move to a new location. You repeat the process for each green dot that appears, and once it stops producing dots, the calibration is complete.

After calibrating the sensors, I was shown a launcher application with a couple of different tech demos. Wilson had me try a demo that had me shooting at various targets by simply using my eyes. I was surprised at how well this actually worked, and it's easy to see the benefit of such a feature.

I quickly started imagining what kinds of experiences could benefit from the use of this technology. Eve: Valkyrie came to mind as a game that could very easily make use of eye-tracking to enhance the game play. Imagine looking around through the canopy of your space ship, but when you look at an enemy, it locks the missile launcher onto the target, rather than manually assigning the target. This could be the reality of playing the game on a Fove VR HMD.

Foveated Rendering, For Real

Eye tracking has another big advantage that will affect rendering performance in a big way. With the ability to isolate where you are looking, Fove has managed to get Foveated Rendering working. Using this technology, Fove is able to perform detailed rendering for the section of the scene that is actually in your focus. The rest of the scene can be toned down in quality to free up graphics resources for the important parts.

Nvidia has been talking about getting Foveated Rendering working for VR, but at this time it is simply something the company is working on. Fove has a marked advantage with its eye-tracking technology. Wilson told me that they use a custom shader to pull this off, and he showed me the effect. It’s really quite impressive to see this effect in real-time. You can’t really tell it’s happening when the headset is on, but as a spectator watching the laptop screen, it was apparent what was happening. 

As I mentioned, the headset that Wilson showed me is an early prototype, so it is a little rough around the edges. The inside of the headset is configured with an LED below the lenses. I was told this is for debugging purposes and won’t be present in the developer kits when they ship later this year. Wilson also said that the inside of the headset will be black, unlike the current headset, which is white inside. 

Well Thought-Out Design

Although it's still a prototype, I found the headset to be comfortable. It looks rather large in the front, but it is well balanced, and the head strap is easy to secure. It's reminiscent of the strap used on the PSVR. There's a section that cups the back of your head and tightens with a dial on the back. This works well enough, but I would expect the mechanism to be significantly refined for the next iteration (not to mention the final product). I was told that the company will have a new version of the hardware that we can see in the next couple months. This upcoming revision should have significant improvements across the board.

There are a number of exciting things happening behind the scenes at Fove. When the company is ready to talk more about them, we’ll be here to let you know.

Thanks to Lochliam Wilson and Francesco Simoneschi from Fove Inc. for taking the time to meet with me, and for bringing the headset with them for this exclusive look.

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Kevin Carbotte is a Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware US. He writes news and reviews of graphics cards and virtual reality hardware.