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Tobii HTC Vive headset

Tobii Eye-Tracking on HTC Vive: The Next Evolution of VR Interaction

Eye-tracking like this needs to become the VR norm.

It’s been some time since VRFocus first discussed the potential of eye-tracking within virtual reality (VR) with specialists Tobii. In that time we’ve seen the rise of FOVE and NVIDIA’s own internal experiments with SMI, amongst many others, and yet Tobii had stayed on the sidelines. It appears the company was simply biding its time, as now it has announced that it is working with five partners in the VR space, including Qualcomm for the recently revealed head-mounted display (HMD) reference design.

You’ll have no doubt read about this partnership elsewhere on VRFocus already, and while Tobii aren’t yet ready to reveal the remaining four unannounced partnerships the company has recently been offering technical demonstrations on a HMD that will likely be more familiar to all VRFocus readers: the HTC Vive.

Tobii made it clear that this was a retrofit of their technology to a HTC Vive and in no way hinting at a future product (the rumour mill is doing a good enough job of that for the company as it is), however what they showcased was no less impressive because of it. With four different experiences available, Tobii offered a glimpse at the future of social VR, videogames, systems interface and foveated rendering.

The first demo was a simple reactive pane in which the player could see an avatar that mirrored their movements with and without eye-tracking enabled. This piece – also benefiting from a variation showcased on Qualcomm’s reference design HMD – allowed for an evaluation of just how much the removal of the 1,000 yard stare from VR avatars could impact virtual human interaction. Quite simply, you needn’t expect VR to cross the uncanny valley before it begins to present the opportunity for genuine relationship building between two distant humans with progress in interaction such as this.

A second demo was more directly related to videogames; or rather the hand-eye co-ordination often required therein. Throwing a grenade or using a bow and arrow can often be an imprecise activity in VR due to the lack of a crosshair. In traditional videogames, it’s a case of point and press a button, however with VR having motion-controls momentum and accuracy of arm movements also come into play. Tobii’s demo featured two types of rocks; one which did not allow for eye-tracking and one which did. It’s hard to tell just how weighted the demonstration was in favour of the eye-tracking rock, however it’s clear that regardless of how forcefully useless throwing without eye-tracking may have been, aiming the arc of a throw with eye-tracking enabled does make a huge difference.

The next demo offered by Tobii centred upon menu navigation; removing the need to point and a middle click when selecting options in menus. No longer is it a case of click on a timeline, drag, release, but simply look at where on the timeline you want to skip a video to and click, with surprising precision. It’s a small yet welcome additional benefit of eye-tracking in VR – and potentially augmented reality (AR), too.

Finally we get to foveated rendering, a technology that allows for lessens demands on a GPU as the number of pixels being rendered at full quality is lowered. When knowing where the player is looking, the surrounding pixels can be rendered as standard while those leaning towards peripheral vision can be of lowered quality, much like natural human eyesight. It’s a technology that VRFocus has reported on many times and one which numerous developers and hardware manufacturers have assured is coming, but no one seems to want to commit to when. According to Tobii, that ‘when’ has now become ‘soon.’

Tobii’s latest eye-tracking solution for VR is suitably impressive, leading you to wonder why no HMD manufacturer has yet taken the plunge with a consumer device. One has to ask whether it’s Tobii’s inflexibility regarding exclusivity or a matter of cost, but those answers will likely be given once the remaining partners in Tobii’s quintuplet are revealed.

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