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Hands-on with Santa Cruz: Oculus VR’s Tracked Mobile Headset Doesn’t Fail to Impress

It’s a long way from being consumer ready, but Oculus has upped the game again.

Despite Google’s official unveiling of the forthcoming Daydream mobile head-mounted display (HMD) earlier this week, mobile virtual reality (VR) is due a revolution already. The Oculus VR and Samsung collaboration on Gear VR may only be a year old but in an industry moving this fast is already looking long-in-the-tooth. The next holy grail of mobile VR is inside-out tracking – allowing for head-tracked movement without an external camera – and Oculus VR has not only come along with the technology to adequately represent this, but roomscale movement tracking also.

Intel and Qualcomm have both revealed mobile HMD prototypes in recent months that allow for inside-out tracking of the head, delivering an experience not too dissimilar to that which is currently available on the Oculus Rift (sans Oculus Touch and additional Constellation trackers) or the soon-to-launch PlayStation VR. However, Oculus VR’s Santa Cruz prototype goes one further by incorporating free movement. This isn’t simply allowing look, tilt and distance to be tracked: Santa Cruz allows the user to move freely around a space much like the HTC Vive.

Standalone VR Oculus - 3

The demonstration software was very simple. An opening science-fiction scene with no action was presented to allow the user to acclimatise to the volume they could move within and get their first demonstration of the visual chaperone system: a grid which currently looks very similar to that of the HTC Vive’s. Soon thereafter, the user is transported to a new version of the paper city demonstration first seen alongside the Oculus Rift Crescent Bay prototype at the original Oculus Connect event two years ago; VR is most certainly becoming cyclical.

Three sequences within this scene had the user walking around a field and taking in the view, witnessing planes flying overhead and dogs barking before things turned for the worst: alien invaders. Not long into the short demonstration UFOs come into the scene and begin abducting the white silhouette people, with the climax (or rather, somewhat of an anti-climax) being your own abduction. The software was less thrilling an experience than the impressive technology itself. Again, the sensation of being wowed more by hardware than the software takes us back to a time when the shape that consumer VR would initially take was still a mystery.

The tracking was very well realised. Spatial awareness was incredibly accurate, as was head movement in terms of depth. Turning did present some irregularities however: the image displayed did seem to lag at times, seemingly uncertain as to whether your body was moving or just your viewpoint.

As for that hardware, the Santa Cruz demonstration unit was essentially an Oculus Rift, broken apart and cobbled back together with new components. The external housing hosted four cameras on the front panel which determined your position relative to the preset volume – no information is currently available on how to set that volume – and the rear has a large bulk containing all of the on-board computational hardware. HDMI and USB cables are visible for transferring data from this rear processing to the internal monitor and vice versa, resulting in a much more delicate feeling design than that of any previous Oculus VR hardware; however, the inference that this is very early hardware was reinforced throughout.

Santa Cruz is a long way from consumer release. That’s evident from the HMD on show, if not from Oculus VR’s own track record. However, the device is very impressive even in its current state, and from here on out it’s only going to get better. When will we see inside-out tracking on a mobile HMD from Oculus VR? It’d be impossible to guess right now, but you can rest assured that when it does come it will be of a very high standard.

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