How a tiny team in Tokyo is taking on Oculus and Sony

Fove Team PortraitFoveFounders Yuka Kojima and Lochlainn Wilson.

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 a new technology that the rest of the industry doesn’t have yet.

In the next few months, Fove will start shipping its $599 headset (Fove 0) to people who preordered it. It requires a powerful Windows computer.

If you want one, you can preorder one for $599 on Fove (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 quickly. (Google bought an eye tracking startup for $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,” Kojima said in an email to Business Insider. “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 out last month. It was extremely cool. I played a “Space Invaders” style game, and I didn’t have 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 cofounded by a Japanese woman in the mostly-male, largely-American 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.”

Why does eye tracking matter?

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

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

If you look inside the Fove headset, you’ll see a few little specs of technology near where your eyes rest inside the headset.

Eye AimingFoveI shot this space marine with my eyes.

These are infrared sensors, and they track where the pupil of your eye 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, and 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, what you can do is make sure the spot on the screen where they’re looking is extremely detailed, and spend less time and power drawing super detailed parts of the scene in the users’ peripheral vision.

That’s foveated rendering, and it’s an important technology because it’s believed to reduce the power requirements for VR so that you won’t need a powerful computer hooked up to the headset. $4.5 billion headset startup 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 into VR,” Kojima said.

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 $599.

What’s next?

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.”

Add one more target market: the company is actively looking to outfit video arcades and internet cafes with Fove headsets, Fove director of strategy Jim Preston told Business Insider. VR arcades are a booming business, especially in Asia, Preston said.

For explorers who do end up buying a Fove, there also isn’t a lot of software available for gamers yet. The Fove headset ships with a few demos, and it also 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. The company already raised $11 million in a Series A earlier this year, primarily from Asian investors, including Foxconn, which is manufacturing the Fove.

Preston said 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 said.

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