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Hands on: Oculus “Santa Cruz”

Taking VR off-leash with Oculus' wireless 'Santa Cruz' prototype

Even in its early days, the Oculus “Santa Cruz” shows a lot of promise.

Cable management is one of the biggest problems facing modern VR headsets. A big cord hanging off the back of your neck can have detrimental effects on immersion, and pose a tripping hazard.

Yet wired is often preferred, as standalone mobile options, like the Gear VR and Google Cardboard, don’t offer nearly the resolution or performance found on tethered, desktop-based headsets. Wireless headsets also lack positional tracking. While spinning your head while sitting still is fine, the tracking starts to go wonky if you lean too far away from your original position.

Related: Oculus Touch will be $199, but that’s just the beginning of what Oculus announced

Oculus is striking right in between the two options with Santa Cruz, a prototype headset we had a brief chance to try out at Oculus Connect. It’s still an early prototype, but it already has us hopeful for its potential in upcoming VR experiences.

Why now?

On the eve of Oculus Connect 2 in 2015, founder Palmer Luckey took to Reddit to quash any hope of inside-out tracking coming to mobile virtual reality. “Our computing vision teams are doing some amazing work, but VR-grade inside-out tracking is not currently workable on mobile devices.” So what’s changed in the last year? Not much, according to Oculus’ Head of Mobile Max Cohen.

“The processors that we’re using are similar to what you’d find in regular mobile computation.” Instead, he says, it’s ambition, and a few clutch discoveries, that have brought the concept as far as the Santa Cruz prototype. “It’s just a lot of hard work, and some secret sauce.”

So why show it off at Oculus Connect, when it’s so far from completion? Cohen says that “although this is just a feature prototype, it’s something that we think is going to be one of the most important aspects of VR.”

Cutting the cord

If you didn’t know any better, you might think the Santa Cruz prototype is just a Rift headset with some extra parts glued on. A small black box sat right on the back of the headset, comfortably falling right at the back of your neck. It also had a bulkier support structure on the headband, though that’s to be expected on a prototype. What wasn’t expected was how well comfortable the headset felt. Like the Rift, the balance between front and back weight, helped by the top strap, worked to make sure the headset was snug but comfortable.

Without a cable, it’s much easier to feel totally immersed in a VR environment.

Despite its resemblance to the consumer Rift headset, there are many differences under the hood. Four tiny cameras positioned around the outside edge of the screen capture the outside world, tracking user location without any help from external sensors, or even a computer. That means it also supports room-scale experiences, using the “Guardian” system to keep users in pre-determined bounds by showing the borders of the play space in VR.

Admittedly, the content of the demo we saw wasn’t terribly exciting. We saw a short video referred to as “Paper Town,” which has been floating around the Oculus demo reel since the DK2 days. The version we saw at Oculus Connect 3 had a larger walkable area, with objects at the edge of the space to give you an idea of the usable areal without having to flash the digital boundary.

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Oculus

Many of our questions about the technical aspects of the headset went unanswered, except to remind us that this a prototype. As Cohen says, “this is by no means anywhere near production ready, but we think it’s a pretty neat experience at this stage.”

Conclusion

What struck us about the Santa Cruz prototype isn’t the ability to fit all that power onto the headset, or that inside-out tracking works just as well as any sensor-based solution. What’s most impressive is how all the pieces come together to form a sum that’s greater than their parts. Without a cable, it’s so much easier to feel totally immersed in the environment. Add in full room-scale support, and you’ll forget the headset is even there at all, until the boundary pops up.

Related: A rift in the Rift: Why room-scale VR is about to split Oculus fans apart

Oculus isn’t the only company racing towards that goal. Google Tango is no longer a project, and while we have our doubts about its current performance, it’s clear the tech has legs for exactly this sort of project. This option is one that will live in harmony with existing Oculus offerings. “Mark [Zuckerberg] talked about standalone being in the middle, but the reality is that middle is very large.” Cohen says, “You’re going to see a lot of differentiation in the standalone category.”

Intel is in this game too, with its Project Alloy. And Qualcomm has its VR820 headset, which we tried at IFA 2016. Suddenly, within the span of just a few months, wireless VR has gone from an affordable, mobile-centric solution to a serious possibility that’s being considered by some of tech’s most influential companies as the foundation for future VR headsets.

If there’s one thing that’s absolutely certain about the state of virtual reality in 2016, it’s that things are still in flux. From best practices in game design, all the way down to hardware, everyone is experimenting and playing, and trying to break the rules. We’re just glad Oculus let us in on the process.

Highs

  • Less cables means more immersion
  • Responsive tracking
  • Full room-scale support

Lows

  • Very early prototype
  • Its place in the market is unclear