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This Startup Wants to Help Build the Next Generation of Virtual Reality Headsets

“What you just witnessed is the future of virtual reality headsets,” Youssri Helmy said after demonstrating his company’s technology in San Francisco this week.

Helmy’s words may sound like hubris, but he could actually be right: Eonite Perception, the startup that Helmy co-founded together with Stanford computer vision experts Anna Petrovskaya and Peter Varvak in late 2015, and now leads as its CEO, is working on inside-out-tracking — a technology that will give VR headsets the ability to detect the position and movements of its users without the need for any external cameras and sensors.

“It’s actually a very human way of doing things,” Helmy said, likening inside-out tracking to the way a person’s perception works.

It’s also very different from the way existing VR headsets currently tackle this problem. Low-end headsets like Samsung’s Gear VR and Google’s Cardboard and Daydream don’t offer any positional tracking at all. The result: Users can look around in a VR space, but not change their point of view. Even something as simple as leaning forward can lead to a cognitive dissonance, because the VR game or app can’t translate the movement into an accurate change of position.

Higher-end and much more expensive headsets like the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive make up for this shortcoming with positional tracking devices, which use technology like infrared and lasers to track the location and movements of a user in a room. In simple terms, both Rift and Vive use a kind of external camera setup for tracking. Installing those cameras can be tricky, and the amount of space one can use to play is defined by the location and number of tracking devices.

Eonite Perception wants to do away with such external trackers by integrating a depth sensor directly into the headset, and allow users to play or experience VR anywhere. It’s not a new idea — companies like Facebook and others have been working for years this, and Helmy said that there are a number of difficult challenges to overcome to get inside-out tracking to work. These include the cost of the solution, latency and the ability to detect even the smallest movements. “The accuracy has to be sub-millimeter,” he said.

Helmy’s company thinks it has cracked all of these challenges, and a demo given by the company in San Francisco this week was indeed impressive. Combining an off-the-shelf depth-sensing camera and a HTC Vive headset, Eonite was able to show off a simple game that made it possible to walk through a virtual room about the size of a regular hotel room, accurately tracking movements and positional changes.

There were a few caveats — the blinds of the room were closed shut, and some viewing angles made the sensor fail outright — but Helmy said that commercial solutions will be able to overcome any shortcomings of the prototype.

Eonite Perception officially announced the commercial availability of its Eonite Vantage head tracking solution Thursday, and Helmy said that we will see a new stationary VR headset from an unnamed manufacturer integrating the technology in the coming months. That solution will make it possible for consumers to scan their living room in less than 60 seconds, but also continuously update its internal mapping so users won’t accidentally step on their cat when it walks in the room while they use the headset.

For safety reasons like these alone, it’s clear that inside-out tracking will be a big deal — and Helmy believes that his company can help make it a reality. “I would be very surprised if two years from now, there is any outside-in tracking left,” he said.

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