We've made the case that once you've tried proper eye tracking in virtual reality you're not going to go back, but that was over a year ago. Since then, we haven't gotten a VR headset with it already built in. You still need to get it as a separate add-on.
That's no longer the case with HTC's new Vive Pro Eye, which packs in integrated eye tracking and foveated rendering. I got to try out HTC's eye tracking tech at CES 2019 in several demos, and the short end of it is that it delivers.
Read this: Eye tracking is the next step for VR
When you first put on the headset, you're going to have to tweak the headset to match your eyes. After you tighten the strap on the back, the Vive Pro Eye will have you adjust the pupillary distance to suit.
You'll be shown two empty circles and two blue circles. You have to adjust a dial on the bottom right of the headset to bring the blue circles into the empty circles, which means the Vive Pro Eye's tracking is all set to your eyes.
Then you'll be told to stare at some blue dots that dart around the screen. This is to make sure the tracking is optimised. Once you do all that, you're ready for some sweet eye tracking.
The first experience I tried was a VR meeting app called Sync, and it makes subtle use of eye tracking, using your eye position to animate the eyes on your avatar. So if there's a virtual presentation going on and your eyes are staring up at the ceiling instead of at the speaker everyone is going to know.
It's a small but massive difference. In my demo, I was teamed up with a demonstrator showing me around the app. I couldn't do the normal VR thing I do and look around like a doofus. I had to actually watch him and show him I was listening – with my eyes, not just my head.
Another demo from Major League Baseball simply used eye tracking as a navigation tool. You look at the start button and it starts. It actually takes a bit of time to get used to, because so many VR apps rely on head position to do this. But once you do, it's far easier and more natural.
The most interesting and potentially consequential use was a demo from Lockheed Martin, which used it in a flight simulator. While you're in the cockpit getting the plane ready for flight, you activate controls with your eyes. Your instructor can get a full report on where you looked in the cockpit. They can track whether you're paying attention to the instructions or whether you get lost and can't figure out where certain controls are.
What was harder to figure out was a demo from BMW. This demo was all about foveated rendering, which increases the quality of what you're looking at directly, with everything else taking a backseat to save GPU power. I kept trying to trick it, looking at one thing while trying to suss out whether quality degraded in my peripheral vision.
And, well, I couldn't tell. At some points it looked like the outer rims were a bit fuzzier, but it's definitely not something you're going to easily notice. Instead, it's more of a background thing that helps you save GPU power and energy. It means developers can craft higher quality games and apps. You not noticing is the entire point.
HTC's done a good job here. The eye tracking is easy to configure and it feels mature. There were no noticeable hitches, everything just worked and, most importantly, it actually feels game changing. You truly are not going to want to go back.
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