There's a nice anecdote Fove's CTO Lochlainn Wilson throws out when we sit down for my demo of Fove's headset. It's about a meeting he had with an Oculus engineer who wanted to learn more about Fove's eye-tracking VR headset. "I told him the specs of the headset, and he looked at me and said, 'That's impossible', and I said, 'No, we're running it. Look.' And he looks at me and says 'The spec doesn't support that'. And I'm like, no, it technically doesn't.'" Then Wilson points to the headset on the table and shrugs.
"Our headset is pushing HDMI to the physical limits of HDMI, it can't go any faster than this."
Fove has just announced that its eye-tracking headset, Fove 0, is now available for pre-order. Why the zero? Because this isn't actually the final consumer model. That will come towards the end of 2017, but beyond some tweaks for added comfort and maybe a front-facing AR camera, it won't be hugely different to the version you see now, which costs $599 on pre-order ($549 if you order before 9 November). The Fove 0 will run a large number of SteamVR games as well as any future eye-tracking titles, which Fove hopes will start flooding in as more headsets are released into the community.
"There's no technology right now a VR consumer could be satisfied with in three years time"
In terms of power the Fove is right up there with Oculus and Valve, and the eye-tracking tech, which sets it apart, is certainly impressive. You can read our more in-depth thoughts and an explanation of how it works here, but "foveated rendering" is the technique of only fully rendering where the eye is looking, which means less processing is required. It also means that the eye-tracking can be used to trigger events, like shooting a laser in the direction you're looking, or - perhaps more importantly for VR - allowing you to focus on objects at different distances in the way the human eye does automatically.
Even with the eye-tracking taken out this is still as powerful as the Oculus and Vive, and in fact the Fove boasts a higher resolution than both of them. "This is so nearly ready to be the final consumer model," says Wilson, who notes it's much closer to Oculus Rift CV1 than to any of the prior Oculus developer kits, if you were to use the same scale.
Given that Fove is first to the market, it's no surprise that there's little content making use of the headset's technology, but the hope is that by the time the full consumer model arrives there will be a rich library to enjoy.
Fove also wants to be an open platform, and thanks to Valve opening up its Lighthouse tech it will soon have the headset working with that too; for now it's tracked by a single sensor, created by Fove, that comes packaged with the headset. "The problem is that Lighthouse is better," Wilson explains.
When I ask whether the interest in Valve's technology is reciprocal, Wilson says, "Valve are working with us, that's about all we can say". Fove hasn't licenced its tech to any other headset manufacturers, but conversations with Valve seem to be around standardising Fove's eye-tracking tech, which would be an interesting move were it ever to happen. "We want to play nice with everybody," Wilson adds.
Working with Lighthouse means Valve's Vive controllers would also be Fove compatible, but for now it works with a standard Xbox One gamepad. Wilson says that Fove doing its own motion controllers is "on the cards" but it's not a current priority.
"It depends if other third parties come up with controllers that work well in the Lighthouse ecosystem," he says. "If we make controllers, expect them to be very different to both Valve and Oculus controllers". Wilson says they will be "significantly more functional" than what Oculus and Valve are offering right now, with more fine finger controls.
"We're waiting and seeing," adds Fove's CEO Yuka Kojima. "And if the technology isn't where we want it to be, we'll jump in"
Speaking of hardware, I ask the Fove team about how they think the product cycle will play out. "VR is not going to settle down anytime soon," replies Wilson. "Anyone who thinks they can make a headset now that's going to last five years is dreaming, in my opinion. There's no technology right now a VR consumer could be satisfied with in three years time."
For the eye-tracking technology itself, it may come even sooner than Oculus's Michael Abrash predicted. "I feel like the tech is ready," says Wilson, "and it's within a year or two of being ubiquitous."