Hands-on with Fove, the VR headset that has its eyes on you

This virtual reality display packs eye-tracking tech for a more immersive experience. We take a peek

Since Oculus Rift arrived, it seems like everyone and their granny is working on a virtual reality headset.

There are headsets you plug into your phone, headsets with hi-res screens, head-tracking and wider fields of view. Fove, though, is trying something different. It's developing a virtual reality headset that watches you back – using eye-tracking technology.

We visited Fove at the Microsoft Ventures Accelerator, where the VR start-up is receiving assistance in getting its product off the ground from Microsoft Ventures and its team of mentors.

The headset itself is – at this point – definitely a prototype. Actually, there are two; one with a styrofoam shell that hints at the eventual product design, and a second that's less polished; a proof of concept for a hi-res display that's 1.7 times the resolution of Oculus Rift's Development Kit 2.

Point of view

Donning the first of the two devices, we find it's a little wobbly; unsurprising, since it's a prototype designed to fit the bonce of Lochlainn Wilson, the firm's CTO. That means we have to hold it steady on our head, or it throws the eye-tracking off. Despite that limitation – which won't be an issue on the finished product  Fove quickly demonstrates its potential; in a virtual garden, we're told to look at a CGI character, who smiles when you meet her gaze. The possibility of using eye-tracking for more immersive VR experiences is immediately apparent; you could select menus with your gaze, and interact with characters in games more realistically.

It also gives you a competitive edge in VR games, says Lochlainn: "I don't believe that VR will ever be mainstream without eye-tracking. It will become a curiosity; but without eye-tracking I don't think you can game competitively. Someone with a keyboard and mouse and monitor will always kick your arse."

Creative blur

Eye tracking could also fix some of the technical issues with virtual reality, says Lochlainn. He's working on "optical tracking methods for fixing errors caused by the headset moving relative to your head."

And eventually, Fove could correct one of the key problems faced by VR users: when using a normal VR headset, you control the direction of your gaze with your head, not your eyes. "We could potentially change the view frustum to modify the 3D projection appropriately based on gaze," says Lochlainn. "This may help make presentation of very near objects more realistic."

Fove's even looking at ways to blur areas of the image that you aren't looking at, to represent your focus. "In the virtual reality world, everything is in sharp focus," notes Fove CEO Yuka Kojima. "It's one reason for simulation sickness; the blurring helps make the experience more immersive. Also we are trying to reduce processing requirements – so where you're looking, it will focus the rendering processing power." In the video above, showing an early test, the green areas pick out where areas of the image could be blurred for a more realistic viewing experience. 

The long view

Gaming's just one area that Fove's focusing on, though; it could be used to add eye-tracking information layers to virtual reality scenarios. "Information can come up in the periphery, and users can bring up the information background on what they were just looking at, just using their eyes," says Wilson. "You don't need any controllers; just look at, say, a painting and it'll show the information underneath."

Other applications for the technology include increasing accessibility for the disabled; whether it's through using eye tracking to operate a keyboard, or adding gaze control to telepresence robots used by the profoundly disabled. Fove is even being used for research into autism therapy, using eye tracking to monitor eye contact in virtual environments.

Even our short eyes-on demo with an early version of Fove's hardware convinced us that there's huge potential in the technology; we can't wait to see what a more polished version has in store.

READ MORE: 10 VR rivals to give Oculus Rift a virtual reality check