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Forget the cheesy movies from the 1980s and the failed attempts of the ’90s—virtual reality (VR) is back, with current technology finally ready to make the stuff of science fiction into reality.

This resurgence, most often presented as portable headset technology, is being led by California-based Oculus VR. In 2012, the company launched a Kickstarter campaign for a gaming-focused development kit featuring its headset, dubbed the Oculus Rift.

Its goal was to raise $250,000. Backers ended up pledging more than $2.4 million, and in March 2014, Facebook announced its plan to acquire the company for a staggering $2 billion.

Oculus is not alone. Sony Corp. entered the budding headset space with the announcement of its Project Morpheus headset the same month as the Facebook revelation.

Just one month later, a stealth competitor to both set up its office at the University of Tokyo’s Intellectual Backyard startup incubator. Fove—named after the fovea, the part of the human eye that enables the sharp central vision necessary for tasks like reading, driving, and playing video games—wants to revolutionize the industry by integrating advanced eye-tracking technology into its headset.



Little cameras
While headsets like Oculus and Morpheus display everything in the virtual environment in sharp focus—imagine a wrap-around HDTV—Fove’s eye-tracking technology recreates the depth of field that human eyes see naturally.

For example, if a person holds his hand up to his face and focuses on his palm, everything behind the hand becomes blurry. This effect is achieved in the Fove device through a graphics engine adjusting the display’s focus based on where a user is gazing in real time.

“There are little cameras looking at your eye, but they’re not visible, and they track your eye movements,” Lochlainn Wilson, Fove’s chief technology officer, said.

The eye-tracking cameras are combined with orientation-sensing and head-tracking features, which allow a user to move their head to manipulate the 360-degree view while still controlling virtual interactions with their eyes.

Beyond boosting controls, Fove’s eye tracking allows for deeper interaction with in-game characters. “Fove opens a whole new world for content creation, especially when you can make eye contact with characters,” Wilson adds. “Now they will know if you’re paying attention, and they’ll also know where you’re looking.”

The potential for eye tracking to enhance VR gaming hasn’t gone unnoticed.

At last year’s Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, Sony Computer Entertainment America’s Magic Lab research and development team showed off an external infrared camera that enables players to scan the environment using their eyes and target enemies simply by looking at them.

SensoMotoric Instruments, a German company that specializes in gaze and eye tracking, has designed an eye-tracking add-on for the latest Oculus development kit. The upgrade requires a client to send their headset to SensoMotoric for retrofitting and costs $14,850—some 42 times more than the Oculus devices to which it attaches.

Razer Inc., a California-based, high-end gaming hardware maker with a cult following, recently announced its own VR headset, the OSVR (which stands for open-source virtual reality).

Razer’s CEO, speaking at the January Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, said he hopes the headset will speed up the development of the virtual reality platform by allowing developers to hack it as they please. Eye-tracking technology was named as one potential addition.

Fove’s Wilson isn’t intimidated by bigger, better-funded firms such as Razer, Oculus, or Sony, however.

“Fove is the amalgam of great technology,” he says. “So long as [Oculus is] not actually innovating [its own hardware], the field is open. Nobody is doing what we are doing, at the price point we are aiming for. To be honest, without something like eye tracking, Oculus will be a non-starter for serious gamers—it’s a passive experience.”


Tech440

Fove’s eye-tracking technology recreates the depth of field that human eyes see naturally.

Crossover applications
Wilson, an Australian, started working with head-mounted displays in 2013, as a hobby. At the time, he was doing university research related to psychology; one project dealt with autistic people and eye contact.

“It’s very important for Fove to go beyond gaming, because it has the potential to change lives,” he explained.

“We give disabled people a private space that they are in total control of—so long as they have their eyes, or even one eye. [Fove] could be used as a medical head-mounted display where surgeons use it for detailed camera work and could interact with the system, without requiring a nurse to do everything.

“There’s also interactive cinema, productivity for finance and security, virtual market research, dangerous-situation simulation, and design studies—[gaming] is just a start [for the potential applications].”

The startup is currently working to provide headsets to schools for disabled children. In a heartwarming video the company posted in December, a handicapped boy plays the piano at a Christmas concert using only his eyes.

On the gaming front, Fove’s CEO, Yuka Kojima, brings industry expertise to bear. She spent four years at Sony Computer Entertainment and then became a social gaming director at Japanese mobile gaming firm GREE, working directly on the hit title Driland, a card battle game that was earning the company $26 million a month in 2012.

“Japan is the best place for a hardware startup,” Kojima explained.

“There are huge companies making complicated electronics, and we’re close to manufacturing centers in China, Taiwan, and elsewhere in Asia. Japanese hardware startups are rare, because they’re seen as risky. I know how to monetize mobile games, so I want to do the same with a more complex, emotional experience.”

Though born in Tokyo, the startup has global ambition. Wilson said hardware development will remain based in Japan, but business development will be moving to the United States. The next step for Fove harkens back to the birth of its billion-dollar rival Oculus—a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter.

Wilson’s team was aiming for a March debut on the online platform, though he admitted it “might be a little later.” As for the amount crowdfunding backers will have to pledge to secure a Fove headset, Wilson expects it to cost in the “low $400” range—the same price the company is targeting for its future consumer version.

Fove secured an undisclosed amount of capital from Japanese angel investors last year, and one possible exit option has already appeared. It became the first Japanese startup to be invited to the Microsoft Ventures Accelerator in London in fall 2014.

Many industry insiders speculated that Fove’s invitation to the tech giant’s accelerator was priming it for acquisition and, thus, potential integration with the company’s Xbox One gaming console. Wilson left the possibility open, simply stating that he had “no updates—yet.”

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J.T. Quigley is an editor for the Tech in Asia news site who reports on companies and happenings in the region’s tech and startup scene.

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We give disabled people a private space that they are in total control of—so long as they have their eyes, or even one eye.