The future of VR is wireless.
Today, Oculus announced that its standalone VR headset prototype, the Santa Cruz, will be available to developers in the next year. The company didn’t provide further details of when exactly that would be, but they were giving demos of its latest prototype at its Oculus Connect conference and I was able to take the latest version for a spin.
I was impressed with the demo I had last year of the early prototype, even though it was a pretty limited proof-of-concept more than anything else. So I was excited to see that Facebook has made significant progress in the last year.
The headset I demoed last year felt very much like a work in progress: its processors and fans were attached to the back side and there were many visible wires. I wasn’t allowed to photograph the version I saw today, but it felt much more like a finished product — all of the wires, cameras, and components were contained in the headset.
The form factor is similar to the Rift, though it’s noticeably bulkier, which isn’t surprising considering it needs to house an array of sensors, cameras, and processors needed for its positional tracking.
I was able to try the headset out while playing two different games, which was a huge step up from the experiences available a year ago.
The first was Dead and Buried, a first-person shooter that pits you against zombies in a Wild West-style environment. The gameplay itself is about what you’d expect from that style of game: your goal is to take out the zombies, using a variety of guns and other weapons before they get you.
It uses touch controllers that look and feel very similar to Oculus’ Touch Controllers for Rift: there’s a touchpad and a trigger button, but no joystick. Still, they’re just as intuitive as what you’d use with the Rift, and the hand tracking was also surprisingly good, though I noticed a couple small stutters in my demos.
The touch controllers aren’t the reason why you’ll want the Santa Cruz, though. You’ll want the headset because it offers a truly wireless, untethered VR experience. I wrote last year that it’s difficult to overstate just how freeing it is to be able to move around completely untethered while in VR. The difference is even greater now that you can do so while actually playing a game.
The headset is equipped with cameras that are able to detect what’s in your environment and in-game “guides” appear in your field of view to subtly let you know when you get close to a wall or piece of furniture.
My demo was in a windowless room with carefully arranged furniture, and the guides appeared reliably enough so that I never bumped into anything. But it’s still not perfect. During a second demo, I bent down to pick something up off the floor and quickly realized that the headset wasn’t detecting what was beneath me when my hand brushed against the floor.
The Santa Cruz’s cameras point out from the front of the headset, so maybe that’s not all that surprising, but it was a bit jarring when the tracking has been so flawless up to that point.
There’s also the matter of how the tracking will work once it leaves the tightly-controlled spaces arranged by Oculus and gets into actual offices and homes of real people.
So, yes, there’s still a lot of work to be done. But it’s obvious that Santa Cruz — with its expert room-tracking abilities and no cords or computers required — is the VR future that’s seemed out of reach for so long.
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