VIRTUAL REALITY

Next-generation virtual reality headset made by tiny team in Tokyo is challenging Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR

Looks really can kill when you use the VR headset made by Fove to play video games – unlike the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Sony PlayStation VR, it sees what users are focusing on thanks to some clever tech

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 December, 2016, 12:04pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 December, 2016, 12:39pm

Most of the virtual reality headsets on the market are backed by huge companies: Facebook has its Oculus Rift and Sony makes the PlayStation VR, for example.

But a tiny Tokyo-based company, founded by former Sony game designer Yuka Kojima and Lochlainn Wilson, is taking them all on with its own high-end VR headset, and it even includes technology that the rest of the industry doesn’t have yet.

In the next few months, Fove will start shipping its US$599 headset, the Fove 0, to people who pre-ordered it. It requires a powerful Windows computer.

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You can pre-order one on Fove’s website (this version of the headset is aimed at game creators and enthusiasts, though). You should get it in the next few months, depending on when Foxconn finishes production. 

The most important feature of Fove, and what makes it a worthy competitor to Oculus and HTC Vive, is that it tracks your eyes. No other commercially sold VR headset does that at this point, although the competitors are trying to catch up. (Google bought an start-up eye-tracking company for US$20 million last month.)

“When I was working at Sony Entertainment, one of my main passions was bringing more human and emotional reactions to video games,” says Kojima.

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“I can’t wait to see what interactive narrative designers do with eye tracking, or how VR worlds will seem more connected and real with characters that intelligently make eye contact and know where you are looking.”

Eye tracking means that Fove can tell where you're looking while you're in virtual reality, which it turns out unlocks several important new possibilities.

I got to try one of Fove’s most advanced prototypes last month. It was extremely cool. I played a Space Invaders style game, without a gamepad. I simply glanced at the spaceships I wanted to shoot – these looks really could kill (digital space ships and aliens.) 

There’s one other big way that Fove differs from other virtual reality companies – the Tokyo-based company was co-founded by a Japanese woman in the mostly white male world of virtual reality. 

“To be honest, there are not a great deal of advantages to being a woman in the VR industry. What matters most is that you have the right tech and you have the right timing. We think we have both,” Kojima said. “I don’t think too much about being a female founder in tech, though, I prefer to focus my energy on the next task at hand.”

Fove’s founders, Yuka Kojima (left) and Lochlainn Wilson.

Fove launched as a Kickstarter in 2014. At the time, it blew past its goal, becoming the second most successful VR Kickstarter of all time, behind a small project called Oculus Rift, which was eventually bought by Facebook for US$2 billion. 

Fove caught the interest of the virtual reality community because it promised “foveated rendering”, or a next-generation VR concept that is poised to become a very big deal. 

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Inside the Fove headset near your eyes there are infrared sensors that track where your pupil is looking. It’s not as easy as it sounds – your eye darts from place to place, your gaze wanders and doesn’t go in a straight line. To really make eye tracking useful, it needs to be extremely fast and extremely accurate.

But if you can track where the user is looking, you can make that area of the screen extremely detailed, and spend less time and power drawing detailed parts of the scene in the peripheral areas. 

That’s foveated rendering, and it’s important technology because it’s believed to reduce the power requirements for VR so that you won’t need such a powerful computer hooked up to the headset. US$4.5 billion headset start-up Magic Leap uses foveated rendering as one of its core technologies, for example. 

“We’re planning to combine our eye tracking with facial tracking to fully immerse people in VR,” Kojima says.

Previously, high-end eye tracking was only available in research contexts, and required expensive machines. Now Fove is selling a capable eye-tracking headset for US$599. 

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Fove is very clear that its headset is not for everyday consumers. On its pre-order page, the company makes clear that the first Fove is “for developers, researchers, and creators”. 

The company is actively looking to outfit video arcades and internet cafes with Fove headsets, according to Fove director of strategy Jim Preston. VR arcades are a booming business, especially in Asia, he adds.

For those who buy a Fove, there isn’t a lot of software available for gamers. The Fove headset ships with a few demos and supports a few open-source gaming engines, but the company is small and doesn't have the big developer budget of a company like Facebook. 

The company does expect to get an influx of money in the spring when it raises a Series B (second round of financing through any type of investment). The company already raised US$11 million in a Series A (first major round of venture capital financing) earlier this year, primarily from Asian investors, including Foxconn, which is manufacturing the Fove. 

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Preston says in the upcoming round it’s soliciting investment from Western, Silicon Valley-oriented venture capitalists as well, although it’s too early to announce anything. 

Fove expects to continue refining the Fove headset, but it also knows it has technology that other companies might like to use in its virtual reality and augmented reality projects. Licensing its eye-tracking tech is possible in the company's future, Preston says.