The first versions of PlayStation VR, HTC Vive and Oculus Rift were fine. They opened the door for virtual reality to get into millions of people’s homes, introducing gamers to the immersive delights of racing in VR, of action-packed shooter, and plenty more experimental titles, yet their limitations can easily be seen and the technology they’re based on is nearly five years old. Everyone’s now looking to the future of this exciting technology, and of the several competing manufacturers, HTC are leading the way at the higher end.
Unveiled at CES in January and out now for the princely sum of $1599 / €1708 for the whole package, the Vive Pro Eye is an evolution of the Vive Pro announced and released last year. It takes that same higher resolution headset with screens at 1440×1600 per eye, the same outward design, and adds in new eye tracking technology that could potentially be one of the biggest technical advancements in VR.
So just how transformative is it? The answer is a difficult one to explain. Certainly, when the appeal of VR is already a difficult one to gauge outside of the initial curiosity, the benefits that eye tracking offers are subtle. Whether graphical or how you interact with the game, they work in an almost subliminal way, ever-so-slightly improving the experience, but they might be difficult to live without once you’re used to them.
The most obvious use case is to enhance how you can interact with the game world. Where many games have you look at something to interact with it, its actually using your head to point in the right direction (and yes, you’ll almost certainly set your gaze upon the object because of it), but eye tracking enhances it that little bit further. Now your head doesn’t need to be centred, just your gaze, feeling ever-so-slightly more natural because of it.
It’s fascinating the other uses that this can be put to outside of games. For the DVSA, they asked Kainos to investigate how VR could make theory tests and hazard perception tests that much closer to real life, potentially doing away with the need to physically rig a car with cameras and perfect takes on public roads. Of course that means popping on a headset and sitting in a slow-moving virtual car, clicking away as other vehicles take junctions without slowing, put the hazards on with a car coming up behind them, and other stupid on-road dangers.
Where it goes beyond traditional testing is that Kainos can gather data on what you’ve looked at, whether you’ve regularly checked corners and mirrors, even going so far as to log what you’ve seen through the mirrors. From there they’ve discovered what it is that makes you better at spotting hazards; certainly experience and cautiousness helps, but they key physical factor is how fast your eyes accelerate to look at something.
In certain ways that can feed back into video games as well. One of the biggest challenges games can face is in signposting themselves to users and making sure you don’t feel lost. That’s bad enough when you miss the road sign pointing to the town you need to head to in an RPG, but add the claustrophobic all-encompassing nature of VR and it’s even easier to get lost. Knowing if you’ve actually looked at a tutorial message, been paying attention to an NPC quest giver and more could make games and interactions become much more fluid.
There are also some potentially more tangible benefits to the headset knowing where your eyes are looking. Several graphical techniques can spring from this, such as Foveated Rendering, which is a fancy way of saying that the game can make whatever you’re looking at in the world look better. For lower-end PCs, consoles and fixed hardware, this is a great possible technology, as games can scrimp and save on resolution, shadow detail and effects in the periphery of your vision, and spend that where your eyes are pointing.
Spinning out of the former racing game developer Eutechnyx, ZeroLight work with car manufacturers on creating digital twins of their cars, with one of the most notable uses being to then create virtual reality showrooms with those models. Their BMW M Drive Tour lets you view the car from several angles on a virtual take of the Nurburgring Start/Finish line, picking different paint colours, trims, and eventually getting to sit in the car and start the motor – one of the single most unnerving things in VR is having to sit down on a real chair that’s been highlighted for you…
It’s a fantastic looking demo, feeling like I’m physically stood inside some of the spectacular promotional artwork from Forza Motorsport 7 or GT Sport, and part of that is thanks to Foveated Rendering. If I flick my eyes from one side to the other and really pay attention, I feel like I can see the slightest shift in sharpness and detail, but with the high refresh rate of the headset, it’s practically imperceptible. Similarly, that can then be extended to Variable Rate Shading, where reflections and shaders are updated at a slower rate outside what you’re focussing on.
As it stands, eye tracking in VR will remain a niche technology for some time to come. While it’s featured in the Vive Pro Eye headset, this is currently only being marketed to enterprise uses, and it’s a further expense to what is already a high-end premium product. Meanwhile, it’s nowhere to be found elsewhere; the Valve Index lacks eye tracking but explores new inputs with the Knuckles controller, the Oculus Rift S is a sidegrade to the original, while the various standalone headsets instead have things like inside-out tracking and accessible pricing to concern themselves with. However, as the rate at which VR tech continues to advance, it could be sooner rather than later that eye-tracking and the various benefits it brings become standard.