The future of virtual reality is the standalone wireless VR headset. Oculus showed off that future today with a prototype of a standalone version of the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, with no wires and no connection to a PC.
I got to try it hands-on today, and it was liberating. I didn’t have to worry about tripping over a wire, and I could walk around in a sizable area without worrying about going out of the range of a PC. Shockingly, I was able to use something today that I thought was pretty far off in the future.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said today at the Oculus Connect event that the standalone version of the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, dubbed Santa Cruz, has no wires and no connection to a PC. It can function on its own with built-in computing power and sensors, rather than relying upon external sensors or the processing power of a PC.
Zuckerberg showed a video of the prototype, bringing cheers from the 2,500 developers present. But Santa Cruz wasn’t available on the show floor, and I only got to see it behind closed doors in a one-on-one session. Zuckerberg said mobile VR such as the Samsung Gear VR has its purpose, as does the headset connected to a PC. But he added, “You can’t take it out with you into the world… We are working on this now. It’s still early.”
You can’t buy the standalone product yet. One of the big advances is that the sensors, which currently have to be positioned externally to capture the movements of the user, are now built into the headset. Facebook calls this inside-out tracking, where the cameras look out at the environment, and there is computation on the back of the headset.
“The breakthroughs are how you get to the next steps. Research is driving those things,” said Max Cohen, vice president of mobile, in an interview after I viewed the demo. “This standalone product was built by our product teams, not research. We wouldn’t show it if it didn’t work.”
Packing rendering capability, a screen, an internet connection, batteries, and sensors into the tiny space of a headset is a very tough engineering challenge. But I was amazed at how functional the standalone headset was and how small it was. Intel’s Project Alloy, by comparison, was very bulky and had a huge battery around the headset. I tried the Santa Cruz headset for just a few minutes, so I have no idea what the battery life is like.
“It’s easy to project what will happen in the future,” Cohen said. “People assume this will happen by itself. It’s a lot of hard work to do these types of things. Someone, either us or others, has to make the breakthroughs to do it. If we sit back and say we are all comfortable with mobile VR and PC VR, then there would be no standalone VR. You have to try.”
I wasn’t allowed to record video or take pictures (but you can see the official video below). The Oculus team put the device on my head, and I was transported to a cartoon world where I could look around. I spun around at first and immediately noticed there was no wire encumbering my movement. I looked out at the distance and saw a UFO hovering over the city streets. Then I noticed that I could move further. I walked with my arms behind my back, confident that I wouldn’t hit anything. I walked as far as I could in one direction, until a grid showed me the border of where I could walk (similar to how the HTC Vive works).
I then scoped out the rest of the distance I could walk, and it seemed like most of the room, perhaps 15 feet by 10 feet. I looked around again, and the UFO was over my head, ready to beam me up into the spaceship.
It was an appropriate ending to the demo, as this felt like science fiction, and it was something that I didn’t expect to experience in 2016. Facebook and Oculus aren’t saying when it will become a commercial product.
“This isn’t a product,” Cohen said. “This is very early on.”
Here’s Facebook’s video of the Santa Cruz headset.