FOVE and the potentially game-chaging Eye-Tracking technology

FOVE is a Japanese HMD and software developer that has developer a potentially game-chaging eye-tracking technology.

Since the acquisition of Oculus by Facebook, Virtual Reality has attracted a high level of interest as the “next big platform” after mobile, with major players such as Samsung, Sony, Google or even Apple working on VR / AR products and platforms. The industry attracted a record $2.3 billion of VC investments in 2016 [1]

Now, try looking at the bottom of your device’s screen! – –  You have probably just done so without moving your head, just by looking down. This is not possible in most of the Virtual Reality systems in which looking around requires moving your head. This “owl problem” is what FOVE  is aiming to solve.

The start-up, founded in 2014 in Japan, has developed in collaboration with the University of Tokyo an eye tracking system that allows it to know where the user is looking at any time of the VR experience. After a successful over-subscribed Kickstarter campaign in 2015 and a Series A funding, the company has started shipping its first headsets in 2017. [2]

Value Creation

FOVE uses a combination of hardware and software in order to identify where the iris of the user is pointed at. Knowing where the user is looking creates value both in terms of user experience as well as technological performance.

From a user experience, FOVE enables new use-cases in virtual reality that were not possible before. Users can interact with the environment in a much more precise way. For example, avatars of different users can look at each other’s avatars in the eye, which allows for a host of new potential Social VR use cases. Other use case may be allowing a disabled person to play piano with their eyes, or a gamer to interact with the game and take action just by blinking or looking at objects. [2]

FOVE also improves the user experience by eliminating the unnecessary and unnatural head movements during VR experiences, which reduces sickness and enables users to immerse themselves into VR for longer periods of time.

From a technological perspective, the fact that the system knows where the user is looking allows it to focus its graphical processing power on that specific area. This allows the system to deliver a higher quality experience where it matters, and lower its quality where it doesn’t. The company claims that it can cut GPU use by up to 75% [3]. In my opinion, this is a potentially game changing contribution in an eco-system where the price and size of the HMDs are putting constant pressure on technological efficiency and performance.

Value Capture

FOVE has developed its own tethered headset, the FOVE 0. The headset has strong technical features: for example, it has a higher resolution than both Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive. The manufacturing was probably done in partnership Foxconn and Samsung, who both invested in its Series A round [4]. The FOVE 0, which is priced at $600, is designed mostly for developers and early-adopters in order to drive adoption and make developers create eye-tracking content. [5,6]

The Road Ahead

FOVE has a couple of options for its way forward. The first option is to ‘go it solo’, and try to build a platform that would compete with HTC, Samsung, and Oculus, potentially with the hope of getting acquired by one of those large players. The second option is to adopt a more open approach through licensing of their hardware and software technology and making it available to third parties.

The big challenge with the first option is the obvious chicken and egg problem: Despite its relatively good technical performance, adoption of the FOVE 0 by users will only happen if users can get access to eye-tracking enabled content. But developers will only want to develop content for a new platform if that platform has enough users. In this scenario, FOVE will have to put significant effort into making it easy for developers to transfer their work done on other platforms to FOVE.

Another path that I would argue is more promising for FOVE is to follow a more ‘open’ approach. The current VR eco-system has been following a relatively integrated / closed model (similar to the ‘Apple’ model for the smartphones). While the hardware and software are done by separate players, the partnerships between Oculus / Samsung and HTC / Valve still create two integrated models. However, both the PC and the smartphone eco-systems indicate that in the medium-term, the open model wins. In this case, it makes more sense for FOVE to follow a more open approach in order to be part of the Android-equivalent for VR.

References

[1] http://www.digi-capital.com/news/2017/02/record-2-3-billion-vrar-investment-in-2016/#.WQNM7lPyuRs

[2] https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/fove/fove-the-worlds-first-eye-tracking-virtual-reality

[3] https://www.slashgear.com/samsung-invests-in-fove-eye-tracking-vr-headset-25390542/

[4] https://www.crunchbase.com/organization/fove

[5] https://www.cnet.com/products/fove-0/preview/

[6] http://www.theverge.com/circuitbreaker/2016/9/16/12940528/fove-0-eye-tracking-vr-headset-design-preorder

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