It takes a few moments to adjust to Fove tracking the movement of your eyeballs, but when it "clicks" you understand just why Oculus's Michael Abrash got up on stage a few weeks ago and declared eye-tracking tech to be central to the future of virtual reality. Only Oculus didn't get there first – Fove did.
Fove is the first VR headset with eye-tracking technology, and it's hard to overstate how important this feature is going to be. The headset made a splash when it appeared on Kickstarter back in early 2015, but this month it launches in developer-ready form as the Fove 0 which you can pre-order now for $599 – with a slightly tweaked consumer model set for the end of 2017.
On specs alone, the Fove hardware is a contender to the big dogs, and in fact betters the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive on resolution per eye by 40%. It's powered by a PC and will, eventually, use Valve's Lighthouse technology to offer full room scale tracking. Fove isn't relying on eye-tracking alone; this is a fully-fledged headset in its own right.
But eye-tracking is the big selling point, and it's laser-sharp; not once did I feel like I was having to exaggerate any movements to get the response I wanted. Fove borrows its name from a technique it employs called foveated rendering, where the the number of pixels outside of your field of view is reduced, bringing down the processing power.
More immediately apparent though is Fove's use of real-time depth-of-field, which mimics the eye's ability to refocus as it moves between objects of varying distance. It's something most of us take for granted until we strap on any other VR headset and notice how many things look blurry even when we're looking them square-on.
The Fove's variable depth is still no match for our own biological tech, but it's impressively good, and once you've tried it you'll understand why this is destined to be one of VR's next "big leaps".
Fove: Eye-tracking tech
For the purpose of demonstration the makers of Fove let me try some games where you blast spaceships or other foes by moving your eyes around the screen like X-Men's Cyclops. As fun as these are, I think there are better examples of how this tech will revolutionise VR.
For example, in one demo I played, Project Judgement, I was in a hostage situation where one wrong look could give away my secrets. My captor put down three photos in front of me, one of which was my ally (as explained in the game's intro), and asked me to look at them. If my gaze lingered too long on the photo it would confirm his suspicions, so I was sure to keep my eyes from lingering on any one in particular.
A glance to the ashtray on the table to my right caused the man to knock it away; when I looked at the gun he picked it up and started waving it in my face. How we use our eyes can tell people so much about us, and it's exciting to think that VR is starting to make use of this.
Later, when a flashbang went off, Fove's CTO Lochlainn Wilson told me that if I had closed my eyes before detonation I'd have saved myself from being stunned. These little visual cues are all part of the makeup that will make virtual reality an even more immersive experience.
Fove: Design and sensor
I won't linger too much on the design because this is still a developer model, and Fove's creators tell me that the consumer version, planned for the end of 2017, will have some minor adjustments.
The headset feels close to the size and weight of the Oculus Rift, and although I've only tried it for a matter of minutes, it seems comfortable enough to wear for extended play times as is. However, Wilson says that he'd like to add dialable eye relief instead of the swappable pads that currently surround the lenses. The team also want it to be more comfortable for people who wear glasses.
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Right now the Fove is used with a gamepad, but Wilson said that they are interested in doing their own proprietary controllers down the line.
One big change that will happen between now and the consumer-model launch will be the sensor, which was sitting on a tripod beneath the monitor during my demo. Right now the headset is using this for positional tracking in a similar way that Oculus and PS VR use theirs, but with Valve now opening up the room-scale Lighthouse spec to anyone, the Fove team plan to use this instead, meaning by the time the consumer model rolls around at the end of 2017 you should be able to move around with the same freedom the HTC Vive allows.
Fove: The games
I've already touched on one game, Project Judgement, where you play out a hostage situation. I also tried one called Project Falcon (noticing a theme here?) where you pilot a mech, using your eyes to lock onto targets and then blast them away with machine gun fire and rockets. Then there's the Cyclops game, in which you shoot spaceships using lasers from your eyes. It's the simplest of the demos, but a nice distillation of what Fove is about.
Other than that, games that utilise the eye-tracking tech are thin on the ground, which is why Fove is opening up pre-order headsets right now and rolling them out into the new year. Before the consumer edition launches later in 2017, more games need to be built, and I can't wait to see where game devs take this. Fove will also work with all SteamVR games, and the creators are keen to make sure the ecosystem is as open as possible.
So, at $599 ($549 if you grab one between 2 and 9 November) should you buy a Fove 0, even if you're not a developer? If you're a VR enthusiast, or just like getting tech early, the Fove team say you'll be getting near enough the full experience, certainly closer to the finished model than DK1 or even DK2 were to the final Oculus. There will be some tweaks here and there to the design, but the internal tech seems pretty set.
Just a few weeks ago some colleagues and I were discussing the two-horse race of Oculus and Vive, speculating how long it would be before a third serious contender entered. I believe that, with enough developer support over the next few months, Fove could easily be that third horse. Eye tracking is no gimmick; it's where virtual reality has to go, and Fove can proudly say it was first out of the gate.