- October 7, 2016 05:02pm EST
An untethered headset offers a glimpse of the future of virtual reality.
To many casual observers, virtual reality represents the future—of computing, social interaction, gaming, and entertainment. But to industry insiders, who flocked to the Oculus developers conference in San Jose, Calif., this week, the main question is not how VR will shape the future, but how to shape the future of VR.
Facebook-owned Oculus has come up with short-term and long-term answers to that question. The long-term answer is perhaps the most intriguing: a very rudimentary prototype of a standalone VR headset, code named Santa Cruz. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg touted it this week as a sort of VR Goldilocks: it combines the best of the Oculus Rift (immersive VR experiences that harness a high-end PC processor and external sensors) with the freedom of the Gear VR (a headset not tied down by wires).
I tried the Santa Cruz prototype for all of three minutes—that’s all the time Oculus let me have with it. I wasn’t allowed to take photos or video, but Facebook showed a quick demo video during a keynote address yesterday, from which we took a few screen shots. The demo consisted of two outdoor scenes that I could walk around and explore, one in outer space and one in a dense city.
As a concept, the prototype is fairly simple. Engineers took a Rift, added four cameras to the front and a CPU, graphics card, cooling fan, and battery to the back. There’s nothing polished about it. The fan is relatively noisy, the logic board is exposed, and the battery dangled from the bottom of the headband.
Once I put it on, though, none of that mattered. The sensation of being completely untethered was something I’d never experienced in VR before, not because I’d never used a smartphone-based headset like the Gear VR, but because this time I didn’t have to lower my expectations about the video and tracking quality.
I walked right up to the chaperones—the blue barriers that appear when you’re about to run into the walls of the physical room you’re in—with no pesky real-world wires to get in the way. Meanwhile, the display never stuttered or demonstrated tracking lag, something that occasionally happens with the Gear VR.
The only drawback that I noticed during the demo was that it appeared to be demanding very little of the Santa Cruz’s onboard processor. Cars, buildings, and other elements looked like polygons, and there wasn’t much motion in the scenes. An Oculus engineer wouldn’t say whether or not Santa Cruz could run a more demanding demo without its performance suffering, but he did acknowledge that components are Santa Cruz’s chief limitation.
Intel and Qualcomm are working on their own standalone VR headsets, so Oculus isn’t alone in its pursuit of an untethered VR future. As Santa Cruz shows, that future is promising, but it’s held hostage by the limitations of fitting powerful components into a headset-mountable enclosure.
Oculus’s more immediate answer to the VR future question, though, is coming in December: the highly anticipated Touch controllers, which I got to test out with a few of the more than 30 games and other apps that will take advantage of them by next year.
PCMag has tried the Touch controllers before, when they were on display at CES 2016. Not much has changed since then, except that many more developers now support them.
I found the most useful aspects of the controllers to be teleportation and grabbing objects, which are both a bit awkward to do with a conventional controller. In Killing Floor (trailer below), a post-apocalyptic first-person shooter, I used the joystick on the left controller to teleport. It is a slightly cumbersome two-step process, but it affords a lot of freedom. You can look around by moving the joystick through 360 degrees first, and then releasing it wherever you want to end up.
While zombies were approaching, though, it was a lot to remember, and I sometimes dropped my weapon (which I held using the middle finger button) while I was looking for a spot to teleport to.
Somewhat easier was the teleportation process that Arktika.1 uses. Throughout the battlefield, there are silhouettes of your characters, and all you have to do is look at them and press a button to be instantly transported to one. The tradeoff is freedom—you can only move to predefined locations.
The Touch controller contributes to the realism of the VR experience. I got used to it after about an hour, and felt almost helpless during my final demo, a controllerless Karaoke game for the Gear VR.
The controller is available for pre-order now at $ 199, and ships in December. Check back soon for PCMag’s full review.