eye close up

How Eye Tracking Can Revolutionize VR

They say that the eyes are the windows to the soul. I don’t know about that, but it is true that our eyes are an important part of how we express ourselves and communicate. We can tell where another human being is looking, for one thing. It seems like a pretty mundane thing, but humans have an incredible ability to determine the gaze of another person.

This is not something that many other animals can do. In fact, dogs can follow the case of a human being, but cats can’t. Why? Because we’ve selectively bred dogs over millennia to care about what we are looking at. Cats have had no need to develop that ability, so Mittens literally could not care less about where you are looking.

Our gaze represents an entirely separate channel of communication. We are sending out and receiving valuable information on this channel all the time. So why not make use of it in a digital context?

EyeTracking Spectacles

Red-Eye

That’s exactly what scientists and engineers have been doing for ages. They have used specialized camera sensors to measure the position of the eye and figure out where it is looking. The most common type of tracking is known as “pupil center corneal reflection”. Basically, near-infrared light is shined at the eye and then a special high-resolution camera geared at picking up that wavelength of light sees the reflection off your cornea and calculates the position of your pupil.

There are lots of different applications for this technology. For example, for people who design computer interfaces it can be incredibly useful to know where on-screen the user is looking. Where is the eye naturally drawn? Does the user take a long time to deal with something visually? There’s a good chance that just about every major app or operating system that you’ve used has benefited from eye-tracking as part of its design.

Eye-tracking technology has also been a major tool for market researchers, psychologists, and medical researchers. It’s helped us figure out mental processes, attitudes, and more. So you might be asking, what relevance does that have to VR? You’ll soon see.

Don’t Look at Me Like That

When you currently use a VR HMD such as the Oculus or a Gear VR, your “gaze” is essentially the center of the viewport. Some applications use this to interact with the world. You can rest the reticle on a particular object and then make it do something by clicking a button or simply waiting.

The problem with this is that just because the viewport is centered on a spot doesn’t mean that you are actually looking at it. Our eyes and head move independently of each other, so the way that current VR systems determine gaze almost makes it feel as if the user is wearing a set of horse blinkers.

It’s not just about accuracy either. Imagine what a VR developer could do if they knew exactly what the user was looking at. For one thing, other characters in the VR world could be programmed to respond to your gaze in a more natural way. Are you looking past them at an object in the distance? They might turn to follow your gaze. Stare at another character’s eyes for too long and you might make them uncomfortable and provoke them.

Ring Light Eye

Prettier Pictures

Apart from making the virtual world react in a more lifelike way, eye tracking can actually make the virtual world look better. You see, normally we render everything on the screen at full detail, since we don’t know where your eye will happen to fall. If we can track your eye movement with speed and accuracy then we can deliver rendering resources on the fly to sharpen up the parts of the scene that are in focus. Alternatively, you could use this to keep the apparent detail the same as we’re used to today, but reduce the horsepower you need to drive it. Either way, it’s a win-win situation.

In the Real World

So are there any VR HMDs in the real world that can actually do this? It turns out that the answer is “yes”. A company called Fove has been the pioneer in this area. Their HMD has already been out in the wild for a while as I write this. It’s a pretty good HMD overall actually, with pretty decent specifications. A little bulkier than some, but it’s not far away from HMDs we already know in terms of size and weight. The eye tracking is apparently pretty good, and for a first-generation product it’s an amazing start.

The problem is that most people who are going to get a VR headset already have one without eye-tracking built in. So it’s a good thing that veteran eye-tracking company Tobii is planning to provide custom modification to just about any VR headset out there. Tobii has been the world-leading name in eye tracking for as long as I can remember, and is set to be a strong challenger to Fove.

The Tobii site detailing its technology as applied to VR pretty much lays out the same advantage I discussed above. Including “foveated rendering”, which means only rendering sharp graphics in spots the fovea is focused. They also say it will make for much better 3D effects.

There’s no doubt that we should all be keeping our eye on VR eye-tracking tech.


vr game on steam

The 10 Best VR Games on Steam

Without a doubt, Valve’s Steam digital game store is the king of PC gaming platforms. For many people, Steam and PC gaming are one and the same, with competitors like Good Old Games, Origin, and uPlay fighting over the scraps.

Valve is also the company behind the HTC Vive platform, so Steam is built from the ground up to work with that headset as well as supporting the Oculus Rift. While you might think that the Oculus store is the best place to get great VR experiences, Steam is where the best VR games live because of its wide user base and relatively easy access for developers.

If you have a premium VR headset and you don’t have a Steam account, then you’re missing out big time. It’s especially VR games created by independent studios that are pushing innovation in the VR space. The problem is that Steam is also absolutely filled with junk titles, and sifting through the mud to find the gems can be a taxing experience. So here’s my personal list of the best VR games on Steam.


ADR1FT

ADR1FT

Have you watched the movie Gravity? Did you also find the stomach-churning perpetual fall through cold and deadly outer space terrifying? Then why not play a VR game that essentially replicates that experience, except this time it’s YOU cooped up in the space suit.

ADR1FT is a survival game set in space. The game takes place in zero-gravity and you can move in any direction – there is no “up” or “down” in space, after all. To survive you need to keep breathing, which means finding a steady supply of oxygen. Run out of air before you find a new tank and it’s bye-bye. Standing between you and that wonderful air supply are a series of survival puzzles. So yeah, it’s basically an unlicensed game version of Gravity.

Reviews of the game have been admittedly lukewarm, but from my point of view this is a beautiful, unique, and thrilling VR experience. The game is also pretty cheap even when it’s not on special. The game was developed for the Rift, but there’s a special Vive version that makes use of its unique motion controls. There’s a PSVR version in the works too, but as usual PC is the place to get the best experience.

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ELITE: Dangerous

ELITE Dangerous

One of the first 3D space games I ever played was called Elite. I played it on an ancient 80386 machine that I received as a hand-me-down from my dad’s friend. The game was originally released in 1984 and is one of the first examples of procedural generation of game content, with every planet a unique mix of parameters.

Many games have aped the formula that Elite started all those years ago. Today we have Elite: Dangerous – a massive online multiplayer game where it’s you, your ship, and the whole galaxy. Elite: Dangerous is a killer app for VR and was designed from the ground up to be an epic cockpit-based experience. Since this is an online-only game, it’s constantly being updated; this is one of the best examples of a VR game that takes you away from reality and really makes you feel as if you’re there. This is the epic experience you dream of when you buy a VR setup.

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House of the Dying Sun

House of the Dying Sun

At first glance, House of the Dying Sun might seem very similar to Elite: Dangerous. This game is, however, very short in comparison, and a tight and contained experience. This is no grand online adventure; it’s a story told through intense, tactical dogfights in the depths of space. While there may not be much meat on its bones, House of the Dying Sun is an incredible space combat sim and you’ll grit your teeth as frequently as you’ll die in the virtual world.

In this game you aren’t the hero but rather a member of an elite corps of personal guards for a brutal dictator, and ordered to hunt down enemies of the empire at any cost. Playing this game on my Oculus Rift, I loved the sense of weight and solidity my ship had. I could feel the claustrophobia of my cockpit glass and the awe of gigantic planets, stars, and asteroids. This is one to get, even if it’s short-lived.

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Superhot VR

Superhot VR

Superhot is an incredibly unique game that takes the idea of “bullet time” to an extreme outcome. In Superhot, time does not move until you do. This is great, but as you stand there in the middle of the room, several assailants are just waiting for you to unpause things so that they can murder you in one of several imaginative ways. It’s an impossible and deadly situation, but you have all the time in the world to plan your solution for dealing with them. Think it through carefully, because once the clock starts ticking again you can go back, but you have to execute your death-defying move perfectly – it only takes one shot or hit to end your game and boot you back to the start of the level again. Superhot is one of the most creative and exhilarating uses of VR I’ve seen so far.

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Job Simulator

Job Simulator

What could be better after a long day of slaving away in your cubicle than coming home, strapping on your VR system, and simulating your job all over again. Well, that’s not really what Job Simulator is about. It’s actually a satirical game about a world where robots have taken all the jobs and people don’t actually have to work. So you get to visit a job “museum” and find out what it was like to work back in the old days. Except, the ones who made this museum got it all wrong, leading to hilarious “jobs” that never actually existed.

You can take on a number of “jobs” such as store clerk or auto mechanic. Job simulator is, in the end, really just a very expanded tech demo for the touch controllers. The good news is that it’s a fun and hilarious tech demo that perfectly demonstrates how to do VR motion controls the right way. It’s well worth the small asking price to add this to your library.

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Euro Truck Simulator 2

Euro Truck Simulator 2

Before I even bought my Oculus Rift I have to admit to spending more time than could be healthy playing Euro Truck Simulator 2. I have no idea why this game is so good. It’s literally just driving a truck full of cargo from point A to point B. That being said, the trucks are beautifully detailed and the driving experience is Zen-like.

Thousands and thousands of other fans agree; this game is one of the most positively-reviewed on all of Steam. The VR functionality of the game is still in beta, but it’s already thought of as one of the best VR driving simulators you can buy on Steam. It’s not a racing game, but a unique way to experience what it’s like to be a trucker carting your precious cargo around. You have to obey the traffic rules and, depending on the difficulty level, some maneuvers such as reversing your trailer into a loading bay can be brutally difficult.

Everyone should play Euro Truck Simulator.

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DOOM VFR

DOOM VFR

Doom is one of the most iconic video games of all time. The original game, which came out decades ago, established the first-person 3D shooter as the premier video game genre. Today’s games such as Call of Duty and Halo all owe a debt to this pioneering title.

The legendary studio ID Software tried to reboot and revitalize the franchise some years ago with Doom III, but although that game was revolutionary in terms of graphics, it failed to capture the essence of what made Doom great in the first place. It went from a pulse-pounding, visceral “monster closet” shooter to a slow-paced survival horror. Not a good look for the game.

In 2016, ID finally atoned for their sins with the release of Doom 2016. This finally brought the Doom formula into the modern age and is an adrenaline-fueled, heavy metal, demon-filled rollercoaster that rightfully received heaps of praise.

DOOM VFR is a spinoff of Doom 2016 and reimagines that experience for virtual reality. It is in fact a sequel where you play a character other than the Marine from Doom 2016. You’re an AI that can possess robots; tasked with cleaning up the remaining demons and getting the station back on track. The game has been designed from the ground up for VR, so there’s no run-and-gun. Instead you can instantly teleport from one spot to the next – neatly solving the movement issue and making sense according to the in-game story.

I’ve only seen some hands-on previews and videos of the game, but based on preview reviews it’s already clear this is going to be something owners of the HTC Vive will want to have. It only works with the HTC hardware and was designed for that system's unique room-scale tracking. There’s no word on an Oculus version at this point.

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Star Trek Bridge Crew

Star Trek Bridge Crew

Oh boy – is this a dream come true for me. Since I was a little kid I wanted nothing more than to sit in a chair on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. Yes, I’m a Trekker, and thanks to virtual reality there’s finally a way to experience what it’s like to sit in that big chair.

Unfortunately for older Trek fans, this game is based on the rebooted nuTrek, which has been a little divisive in the fandom, to say the least. So the particular bridge that you get to visit is that of the lens-flare heavy JJ Abrams variety, although it’s not apparent in the game. There are four bridge positions that can be taken by four players. If you’re the captain then you get to relay orders to the other three players.

It may not be the Enterprise of our youths, but it’s currently the only official VR Star Trek game out there. There have been other non-VR games such as Artemis Bridge Simulator and Spaceteam that have tried to replicate it, but this is for the time being the real deal. If you want the most authentic Star Trek VR experience, this is it.

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Resident Evil 7

Resident Evil 7

The horror genre is one that has taken to the VR medium with great gusto. There are plenty of VR horror apps on various platforms, most of which are short-lived and end up relying on cheap carnival thrills.

The Resident Evil franchise has been a horror stalwart for decades and it’s a brand that we all know well. Resident Evil 7 VR is also the very first AAA horror game that proves VR is a dead-serious platform for video games. If you have the money for a constant supply of fresh underwear, this is a game that has to be a part of your VR library.

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iRacing

iRacing

OK, iRacing is not really a game. It’s a pure simulator. Not only that, but you can’t buy it as a one-time purchase; you need to pay a monthly subscription. It’s hard as nails, it’s not very consumer-friendly with it’s technical details, and there’s a hardcore worldwide following who wouldn’t trade it for anything else.

iRacing aims to recreate real professional racing as accurately as possible, from the physics of it to how it feels in real life. The game supports a wide array of racing peripherals, including some truly bonkers hydraulic rigs that will shake you in your seat as you corner.

The addition of VR support was an inevitability, and in many ways it’s how iRacing should always have been experienced. iRacing is, when taken as a whole, a ludicrously-expensive hobby to have, although it’s much cheaper (and safer!) than actually racing. If you eat, sleep, and breathe racing sims and have deep pockets, then this is the ultimate state of the art.

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screen girl vr

A VR Buyer's Guide for People Who Know Nothing About VR

Like any new technology that’s getting hype, things are changing on a daily basis when it comes to VR. A lot of people who have never given VR a second thought are now chomping at the bit to get their hands on VR hardware.

Don’t think the business world hasn’t noticed, either. The market is being flooded by products, often from less-than-stellar sources, capitalizing on the VR craze. It’s going to take a while for the market to stabilize and for sanity to prevail. Just think back to when the first iPhone was released and the smartphone revolution really got going. Millions of people who couldn’t afford Apple’s premium device went out and bought bad copies of it. Today the smartphone market is pretty mature and almost any mid- to high-end phone isn’t going to disappoint.

VR has a long way to go before it reaches that point of maturity, but in the meantime you still want in on the action. So here I’m going to lay out the VR market in the simplest way I can, so that you can make sure you’re getting exactly what you expect when the time comes to splash the cash.

google cardboard

Worth Its Weight in Gold

The first thing you have to accept is that good VR is expensive. When we’re talking about the best consumer experiences, the stuff that people are raving about, then the amounts are in the thousands of dollars. Just the high-end headsets are liable to set you back almost a thousand bucks. The good news is that these prices are going down constantly and the lower-end hardware of tomorrow is going to be as fast as the top-end stuff of today.

The bottom line is that if a product seems a lot cheaper than it should be, it’s a good idea to do your research before making a purchase. There are three main classes of VR product and I’m going to talk about each of them in turn next.

Mobile Smartphone VR

In terms of sheer numbers this is the most common VR product today. Basically, it's merely a plastic casing you slip your phone into. Inside the case there’s a divider and two lenses; one for each eye.

You run VR apps on the phone, which then provides a split screen image. All the VR graphics processing and motion tracking is done using your phone’s internals. Most of these products are, literally, just a shell. This means that your phone’s specifications and screen resolution are major factors in the quality of the VR experience. That doesn’t mean the nature of the case is irrelevant.

For one thing, the optics matter quite a bit. Cheap plastic lenses might distort the images or scratch up badly. Try to get a mobile headset case that uses lenses that are treated against smudges and scratches. Glass is still the best material, in my opinion, but there are excellent lenses made from other synthetic materials too.

One of the most important features you need to look out for is something called “field of view”. This applies to all VR headsets, not just mobile ones.

As Far as the Eye Can See

Simply put, your field of view is how much of a scene is visible to your eyes. Human beings have a horizontal field of view about 210 degrees wide. The middle 114 degrees are where you can see in 3D and then each eye has some more vision to either side that’s “peripheral” vision. The wider the field of view is for a given VR headset, the less you feel like you’re wearing goggles and the more realistic and immersive things are.

You should not settle for anything under 90 degrees and that’s pretty much par for the course on a mobile VR headset. Some high end sets have achieved 110 degrees or more, but 100 degrees is the gold standard in mobile VR at the moment.

Power Features

While most mobile VR headsets are nothing more than some lenses, a plastic case, and straps, there are a few that offer more than this. Some might provide a USB pass-through, so that you can charge the phone without removing it from the headset. This may also allow for tethering to external hardware, although that’s not common practice at the moment.

There may also be additional motion sensors, batteries, and control buttons. Often these headsets will only work with a particular make or model of phone. For example, the Samsung Galaxy VR headsets are excellent products, but will only work with certain flagship phones from Samsung itself.

technology glass gadget

The Mobile Experience

When it comes to the sort of VR experience that you can expect from a mobile smartphone VR case, the truth is that you should manage your expectations. At the moment, mobile VR tends to range from being just OK to being actively unpleasant. Even if you have a very good phone, chances are it doesn’t have the right sort of screen (low persistence, high refresh rate) that good VR requires. On top of this, the best 3D hardware for smartphones is still a long way from having the grunt for great VR. This is changing fast, but it will probably be years before the hardware advances enough to match up to the really premium stuff available today.

For watching 3D or 360-degree video, mobile headsets are pretty great. There are also some really cool games you can play that were designed for the hardware and so come out well. You may want to invest in a wireless gamepad compatible with your phone and the desired apps to make the most of it all.

Mobile headsets are a cheap way to turn the expensive phone you already have into a sort-of OK VR device. If you pick your apps carefully you can have a lot of fun, but it’s the very slightest of toe-dippings into the world of VR.

Standalone Mobile Headsets

As I write this there are no standalone mobile headsets on the market. However, at least two have been announced by major players, which means that soon you’ll have the option of buying one of these mysterious new devices. Unlike the mobile headset cases we just talked about, standalone VR headsets have all the hardware needed to run their VR software built into them. In practice, this is the same sort of processing hardware you’d find in a smartphone, but there are some very important differences with these headsets.

Built for Battle

Standalone headsets are designed from the ground up to be used for VR. This means they’re better at the job for a number of reasons.

The first advantage is that their screen (or screens) is selected for its suitability for VR. So it will be a low-persistence model (it doesn’t blur) and have a fast refresh rate. There may also be two separate screens angled in such a way so that you get a wider field of view and a more natural picture for each eye.

The next advantage of a standalone headset is hardware performance. Your phone is a multitasking computer. While you’re playing around in VR it still has to dedicate processing time to handle other things like email and monitoring cellular signals. With a standalone system that’s not the case; the hardware can be dedicated 100% to the task at hand.

Hardware can also perform better because of the shape and size of the headset itself. When you have to squeeze all that hardware into an object the size of a smartphone, you have to make a lot of concessions when it comes to heat and battery life. The inside of a VR headset is much roomier than a phone chassis, which means you can run things faster and hotter. The biggest problem with mobile VR is how quickly the phone inside overheats and shuts down – that shouldn’t be an issue with a standalone system.

These devices will also be platforms in their own right, the same way that a Nintendo 3DS or Playstation Vita is a specific platform. Apps will have to be written or ported to the device, even if it runs a modified version of current mobile operating systems like Android. So it would be a good idea to aim for one of the models that seems most likely to get good developer support. You don’t want to be the one who backs Betamax when the world has chosen VHS!

Priced Up

You can expect to pay as much for one of these VR headsets as you would for a premium non-mobile unit. However, you also don’t have to pay for a high-end computer to make it work.

If you already have a pricey phone it may seem like quite an expense, so you’d have to think about whether the improvements in the actual VR experience are worth the outlay. If your phone is a modest model then this is a very viable option from the get go, but if you aren’t sure about wanting VR you are better off trying out cheap VR phone cases. If you’re serious about VR on the go, these promise to be the best that money can buy.

vr conference

Premium Tethered VR

These are the big dogs – the very best VR systems that you can buy as a regular person who does not have a military budget or corporate expense account. These headsets cannot work by themselves, but have to be connected to an external computer.
In most cases this means having a very powerful PC hooked up to the VR headset, which does all the thinking and computing.

At the moment, “tethered” literally means there are cables running from the headset to the computer, which means that this is usually a standing or seated experience. That’s changing, however, and wireless display technology is getting good enough where you might be able to cut the cord without lag or reception problems. In both cases, though, you’re still tethered to an external computer, whether it’s with copper wire or radio waves.

The good news is that computer hardware is getting cheaper and more powerful all the time, so the computer you need to meet the minimum requirements for VR today will be much cheaper in the near future. This has already happened and there are now even VR-certified laptops! Even so, this is by far the most expensive way to get into virtual reality.

A Great Presence

Once you’ve experienced this type of VR you’ll understand what the hype is about. The detail, optics, and sense of presence you get when using one of these systems is hard to describe, but it’s an illusion that stays with you no matter how sure you are that it’s just a simulation. This is something they have achieved through years of research and design getting the optics just right; tuning the electronics until there’s no perceptible lag between your movements and those of your virtual body. Your brain receives all the sensory input through your eyes and ears that it expects. The important imperfections that break the illusion of the virtual world have largely been ironed out. Right now this is the best example of VR you can own. QED.

Odds and Ends

Apart from these three main types of headset, you’ll have to consider some accessories as well. I’ve mentioned a wireless game controller for mobile VR already, but even with tethered VR they are a primary input method. The good news is that most of the premium tethered VR products actually come with a good gamepad in the box. Apart from the gamepad option, there may also be motion controllers provided by that manufacturer. Oculus has the touch controller and Sony has the Playstation Move controllers, for example.

I’ll talk about these non-headset products in other articles on the site.

Decisions, Decisions

How much money you are willing to spend is directly correlated to how good your VR experience will be. That’s not to say that the experiences on the cheaper options are bad – just not as good. If you mainly want some simple games and a cool way to watch movies on a plane or in your bedroom, the mobile stuff is worth looking at. If you want the best, well, you know the price and the reward now. The decision is yours.