One of the latest HTC Vive accessories promises to bring much-needed eye tracking technology to virtual reality. The Chinese startup 7invensun, fueled by some of HTC's venture capital, has launched an upgrade kit known as aGlass that claims to bring foveated rendering and real-time eye control to the Vive experience.
The aGlass set consists of pairs of lenses that fit into Vive headsets and connect to its USB port. The kit also includes three sets of myopic lens inserts so that VR users can wear and use aGlass without glasses. aGlass preorders, which are targeted toward developers, start next month in China for RMB 1,500 (about US$219) though exact US pricing and ship dates have yet to be confirmed.
High-performance eye tracking has several important applications in VR. For one, it enables foveated rendering – graphics rendering that responds to where you're looking on the headset's display. Foveated rendering allows the VR experience to more accurately imitate the way your vision works in the real world while reducing the hardware requirements for VR applications (by prioritizing graphics rendering only where you're looking). Eye tracking also allows a natural, hands-free way to interact with the virtual world.
aGlass, then, seems like an obvious benefit, but we do have a few misgivings. For one, the HTC Vive's accessory lineup is fractionalized and still in its development stages. Sold-separately devices like the Tracker, TPCast wireless adapter and now the aGlass could very well deter early adopters with their fragmented presentation. When the headset and controllers already cost hundreds of dollars without considering the cost of the requisite VR-ready PC, shelling out extra cash for a number of peripherals is less than enticing.
Furthermore, we're cautious about the aGlass' capabilities out of the gate. A hardware accessory alone would not be capable of introducing new eye control and foveated rendering functionality to pre-existing VR content. Current experiences will likely require updates in order to reap aGlass' benefits; we wonder how easily developers will be able to opt in.
Oculus CEO talks VR predictions at OC3, October 2016
Secondly, we'd have to get some hands-on time with aGlass in order to determine whether it represents a major breakthrough or an incremental attempt at one. Last October, Oculus Chief Scientist Michael Abrashidentified eye tracking as a top VR priority for the next five years, but laid out several significant challenges that hardware manufacturers face in realizing this capability. While Abrash's predictions are far from guaranteed, it's wise to take them under consideration. For example, it's good that aGlass includes additional lenses to accommodate nearsighted users, but this seems to be an indication that it might not work for individuals with different types of vision impairment.
If all goes well, however, 7invensun's aGlass technology could eventually be incorporated into the HTC Vive headset. This would embody a milestone advancement in VR as a whole, and would give the Vive a boost over its looming competitor, the Oculus Rift.