This week we learned that Oculus is making serious moves towards eye tracking, buying up a startup that focuses specifically on the technology. But it's not the only one, with Fove having just launched developer kits for its own eye-tracking headset, and other players seemingly making moves to integrate this exciting new tech.
So what's the big deal?
Just ask Oculus chief scientist Mike Abrash, who got on stage at Oculus Connect earlier this year and declared eye-tracking tech to be an essential component of VR's future. The ability to follow where our eyes are looking opens up a huge range of possibilities for games, social experiences, and even the computing power of virtual reality systems.
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When we tried Fove out, we were impressed most not by the games where eye tracking let us fire laser beams out of our pupils, but one where our eyes suddenly offered signals for our enemies to interpret. A glance at a door or an object in the room can give away a lot about your thought process, and developers will soon be able to harness this.
Or think about social VR. Oculus is going big in this area, and you can see how eye tracking could give its Avatars greater presence in the virtual world.
But aren't there other things to fix first?
Untethered VR. Better graphics. More interesting games. Actually, eye-tracking tech could solve a lot of these problems. The Eye Tribe, which Oculus just snatched up, has been working on foveated rendering - the same technology that Fove gets its name from. This is a technique where only focus points are rendered to their highest resolution - in this case, the place your pupils are looking.
Oculus Santa Cruz
This means less demand on computational power at one time, so untethered VR starts to become more viable. As wire-free virtual reality seems to be where all the big headset makers would like to go, foveated rendering may be one of the best ways to get there.
What about augmented reality?
This could also go hand in hand with AR. Think of how a digital overlay on the world could be enhanced by eye-tracking technology. A mere glance at a monument could cue your smartglasses to bring up an info box providing historic details, meaning your hands don't have to do any work. Look up, and you'll see a weather forecast hanging from the sky.
There are endless possibilities for augmented reality, but eye-tracking smartglasses might be a while off yet. Putting the tech into VR headsets with an AR element, like the HTC Vive or even Fove, which told us it's considering it, seems a lot more doable.
Who's involved right now?
Well, we now know Oculus is serious about eye-tracking tech. Fove, which we took for another spin this year, already has its developer headset on the market, and a consumer launch planned for late next year. The company also revealed in our interview that it's currently working with Valve, though we don't know to what extend. It wouldn't surprise to us if Valve is also heading down this road - could it be something we see on the Vive 2?
In October, Google bought eye-tracking startup Eyefluence, hinting at the future of Daydream, while companies like Tobii are also pushing the technology.
How long will it be?
That's the toughest question to answer. We already know that Fove may be selling its consumer-ready headset by this time next year, while HTC has a press conference for the Vive planned for CES next month. Beyond Fove's hint to us back in November, there's no evidence that we'll see an eye-tracking headset from HTC as soon as that, but it's possible. As for Oculus, we don't expect to hear anything for some time, but it's certainly a case of when, not if.