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Project Santa Cruz: Hands-on with Facebook’s next-generation wireless VR headset

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Facebook’s Oculus division is making good progress on its next-generation virtual reality headset, dubbed Project Santa Cruz. It’s a standalone device that has no wires and does not have to be connected to a personal computer, leaving the wearer free to wander around a room in VR. It creates a liberating feeling that allows you to become much more immersed in your environment.

Oculus showed off the prototype on stage at its Oculus Connect event keynote speech yesterday at the San Jose Convention Center. It is distinct from the mobile-based Samsung Gear VR and the Oculus Go $200 headset announced yesterday. Santa Cruz is also different from the Oculus Rift PC-based VR headset.

I had a chance to try out Santa Cruz at the Oculus Connect 4 event. I wasn’t allowed to film the experience or take pictures. But I was able to experience two different applications, one with a cute mascot character and another with the Dead & Buried gunfight game that debuted last year.

Both applications ran flawlessly, with perfect 360-degree cartoon graphics. I felt immersed in a world where I could move or turn in any direction. If I approached a wall in the room, a blue grid appeared as a warning that I shouldn’t step any further. I kept feeling like I should move in a way where I wouldn’t trip over any wires, and then I remembered that there weren’t any wires.

Above: Oculus video of wireless VR headset.

Image Credit: Oculus

The Oculus staff put two controllers in my hands. They were different from the Touch controllers that ship with the Rift. These had no thumbsticks, and they had a touchpad circle instead. There is a ring of infrared lights that face upward, allowing Santa Cruz to detect your hand positions more accurately.

Santa Cruz has inside-out tracking. With it, you no longer have to set up three sensors around the room to detect where you are in a room and what motions you are performing. The inside-out tracking has four cameras on the VR headset itself, eliminating the need for the wired external sensors. Those four cameras deliver a much-needed six degrees of freedom (6DoF) tracking, which is more accurate.

In the first demo, I noticed there was no “screen door effect.” That is, it didn’t look like I was looking through a screen door, a common problem in VR demos. I picked a piece of fruit off of a tree with my hand controller, and then I physically handed it to the cute dog-dinosaur creature. The creature ate it from my hand, and then came out to play. I fed it more fruit and picked up a stick.

I threw the stick, making the full throwing gesture, and the stick flew to a part of the landscape where I aimed it. The creature ran and fetched it. I also pretended to throw the stick, and the creature ran off looking for it. It was a pretty good illusion, and it got me walking around the room. That part of the demo lasted just a few minutes.

Above: Santa Cruz prototype.

Image Credit: Oculus

In the second demo, I played four levels of Dead & Buried, where you have two six-shooters and have to gun down other villains in the cartoon landscape. In the first three levels, I was invulnerable. I could spin around and shoot one bad guy and then turn around and find someone else was sneaking up on me. I had to do that rapidly and keep scanning in 360-degrees for enemies. In the third level, I had to shoot at enemies who were above me.

By the final round, I was vulnerable. I had to dodge enemies throwing dynamite at me. I was supposed to move around the room to do that, but I didn’t move far enough — the dynamite blew me up. If I’d taken advantage of the full radius of the room, around 15 feet, I would have survived.

The upshot is that wireless VR is completely liberating. You get the feeling that you are truly in a place where you can move around and anything you want to do.

There will be tradeoffs. It won’t be easy to get a ton of processing power in a battery-operated headset. And the battery life itself will be very challenging, the more powerful the technology gets.

Sean Liu, product manager at Oculus, said in an interview that the demo unit weighs a little less than last year’s version, which I also tried out at the previous Oculus Connect event in October 2016. It certainly didn’t feel too heavy on my head.

He declined to say how much battery life the device, as it is now, will have. Nor could he say when the Santa Cruz device would become a product. Oculus will start sending the units to developers in November so they can start creating software for it.

It certainly looks promising, but I’d like to see the device do something that requires a lot of speed and graphics processing power. So far, so good, though. I saw no flaws in the device.

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