Facebook’s standalone VR headset feels like the future


SAN JOSE, California — As far VR has come and as good as the experiences have gotten, there still aren’t many options for those who don’t own a high-end PC.

But during the keynote at the Oculus Connect developer conference on Thursday, Mark Zuckerberg briefly teased an all-new headset: a standalone viewer that doesn’t rely on a mobile phone or a PC. Right now the device, known at the Santa Cruz Prototype, is just that: a prototype. But it offers a tantalizing look at an untethered VR future.

Though the video demo of the Santa Cruz Prototype was more remarkable for its brevity than what it actually showed, Oculus was offering short demos at the conference, and Mashable got a chance to take the headset for a spin.

The demo took place in a windowless room set up to look like a living room, with a couch, a desk and other furniture set up around the perimeter. The middle of the room was empty — we were encouraged to move around as much as we liked during the demo.

Photos and video weren’t allowed inside the demo room, but the headset looked just like what appeared in the very short video shown during the keynote. It resembled the Oculus Rift, but had four cameras attached to the front of the headset and the words “Santa Cruz Prototype” emblazoned on the front cover. On the back of the headset was a fan for cooling and a processor.

The three-minute demo consisted of two different animated scenes. One was a suburban neighborhood and the other a rooftop whee you could look down on the buildings around you. The overall image quality lay somewhere between the Samsung Gear VR and the Rift. The graphics were cartoon-like and pretty cheesy but the experience was meant to demonstrate the untethered concept of the prototype more than anything else.

There was nothing to actually do once in the scene other than walk around and explore the surroundings, which was sort of the whole point. You could comfortably explore the virtual world around you without worrying about bumping into something.

That’s because as soon as you got within a foot or so of a wall or piece of furniture a series of blue lines appeared in VR to let you know you were too close (you can see them faintly in the GIF above.) Take a step back and the lines disappeared. Move forward and there they were again.

It’s difficult to overstate just how freeing this is. If you know anything about VR you know that there are really only two kinds of experiences right now: mobile VR, like the Gear VR and Google’s Daydream View, which use smartphones and wired experiences that rely on a PC connection like Oculus or the HTC Vive. Neither of these give you the freedom to comfortably move around while you’re in VR (although the Vive comes close with “room scale” VR — but you’re still tethered).

The Santa Cruz Prototype does. During my demo, I moved side to side, spun around and walked to all sides of the space — I was never the least bit worried about bumping into anything. The blue lines always appeared as I approached the wall.

This is due to the combination of cameras on the headset, which are able to track your movements in relation to objects in the room, Max Cohen, Oculus’ head of mobile, explained. “What it’s basically doing is that it’s sampling the environment and so it’s looking around at objects that it can then recognize,” Cohen told Mashable.

“You don’t have to set up anything. You just put it on your head and in the environment it should, theoretically, work.”

There are some caveats. Cohen cautioned that it won’t work everywhere. Wide-open outdoor spaces, for example, wouldn’t work as there are no boundaries for the camera to detect. Some surfaces and lighting conditions may also limit it (my demo was in a brightly lit room with no windows).

So while it does offer the promise of an untethered mobile experience, don’t expect to use it outdoors very much.

“We expect this standalone product to still be used in the home but also in the home of your friends because you take it with you. Or maybe you take it to your workplace,” Cohen said. “We think it’s very flexible but it’s not like this one thing that magically works every single place you are.”

It may not be magic, but it does feel like the future.