By Matthew Stock
An advanced virtual reality headset could be a game-changer for the entertainment industry and give people with certain disabilities new powers of communication and interaction, according to the developers. The FOVE headset uses eye-tracking technology to give the wearer an immersive and completely hands-free virtual reality, where all of their actions can be controlled by their eye movements.
Virtual reality technology has been touted as the next social and communications platform, with companies like Oculus VR one of the market leaders with their "Oculus Rift" virtual-reality glasses. But FOVE's co-developer and chief technology officer Lochlainn Wilson says their unique technology offers an immersive experience like no other.
"Eye-tracking is game-changing in VR. It allows for much more complex and subtle interaction than has been possible previously. By knowing exactly where the user is looking, characters in virtual reality can react to your gaze and return it naturally or avoid it or respond or question," he said, adding: "But what really sets us apart is eye-tracking, of course. So, with eye-tracking we enable a whole new world of interaction in VR. We enable really sensitive emotional experiences that could only otherwise be experienced in real life."
FOVE's eye-tracking technology uses two in-built cameras in the head mount to recognize the users' eye movement. At present users perform a short calibration sequence, where the device scans the user's eye and tracks the movement of their iris. The team says the next version of the device will use iris recognition to load user profiles.
Wilson says the device delivers an experience previously only possible in science fiction.
"In the control sense, we enable science fiction-like user interfaces like Tony Stark's Ironman and Jarvis; just at a glance user interface respond and updates information, targets an enemy, hits another button and they're blown up. It's pretty cool in that sense. In a more technical side of things, we enable what is known as foviated rendering; where you focus the processing power exactly what the user is looking at. By doing this, we drastically reduce the computing power required to deliver a believable scene."
The Tokyo-based start-up was founded by Wilson alongside CEO Yuka Kojima. And while they clearly have the games industry in their sights, the makers of FOVE say their device could also bring virtual reality to cinema, allowing viewers to interact inside the headset with objects and characters.
Wilson said the technology also presents an opportunity to re-imagine various tasks and social interactions in areas like medicine and education.
"We always thoughts that our technology would have application well outside of gaming. I mean, it's suitable for education, training, research, psychology, neuroscience; there's a lot of fields that can benefit from having this kind of technology," he said.
To demonstrate the versatility of their device, an early proof-of-concept prototype was developed alongside the University of Tsukuba's Special Needs Education School for the Physically Challenged in Japan. Together they created the 'Universal Piano' where the user's eye movements trigger a note on a piano. The standard piano keyboard was rearranged for an interface that can be played by sight; with an accurate and rich musical performance possible through combined application of the mono-tone mode and chord mode.
Wilson says the technology delivers a freedom of expression and creativity for people with certain disabilities; and could even provide a level of communication that was previously impossible.
"There's a lot of people who could benefit from this technology; people who, for example, have limited freedom with their hands and cannot use computers very well. This can completely change that by giving them a private space that they can completely control themselves. And it might be use, like we've done it for playing musical instruments, also accessibility robots that are completely controlled by the users' eyes. So for profoundly disabled people suffering from advanced stages of ALS, for example, they can be given a window to see their family that they can manipulate, activate gestures and even type to speak using their eyes."
Wilson said the expected price point for a FOVE headset would be about $400 USD. The company is now launching a crowd-funding campaign on the Kickstarter platform to raise $250,000 to perfect the product and start manufacturing its headsets.