Tuesday , 17 July 2018
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Hands-on: Oculus Santa Cruz proves stunning wireless VR isn’t a pipe dream

Going into my hands-on demo with Oculus’ Project Santa Cruz headset, think I forgot how it felt to be surprised by virtual reality. We’re coming up on three years since the last major advance in VR, which I’m going to peg as the first time I tried the HTC Vive’s room-scale experience. Since then we’ve seen a few refinements—Oculus Rift’s built-in headphones and lighter form factor, the remarkably comfortable and intuitive Oculus Touch controllers—but the fundamental tech has stayed pretty similar to the Vive demo I saw in 2015.

And I guess I got complacent. I forgot about—well, articles like this, where I wrote about waving back to a virtual alien. That feeling of seeing something really new.

That feeling came rushing back during my Project Santa Cruz demo yesterday, as I closed out my day at the fourth annual Oculus Connect. It’s incredible.

[ Further reading: HTC Vive vs. Oculus Rift vs. Windows Mixed Reality: What’s the difference? ]

Oculus Santa Cruz hands-on

I thought we were further away from wireless VR, I guess. Not Samsung Gear VR-quality mobile wireless. We’ve had that for a while, and the newly announced $199 Oculus Go headset (releasing in early 2018) seems to be a continuation of that ecosystem without the dependence on a separate phone purchase. That space has done some impressive things on mobile architecture, but it’s still phone-quality apps. Mobile VR is fairly simple, fairly small, and limited by the hardware—meaning no position tracking of either the headset or separate controllers.

HTC Vive + Deluxe Audio Strap IDG / Hayden Dingman

PC-based VR headsets like the HTC Vive shown here have thick cables on the back that connect to your computer.

Oculus CTO John Carmack has been bullish on wireless VR for a while though, and for good reason. Cords suck. The tether built into the current generation of Rift and Vive headsets isn’t that distracting, but it’s just annoying enough to occasionally take you out of the experience and kill an otherwise fantastic moment.

But a desktop-quality VR experience with full position-tracking, hand controllers, a smooth frame rate, and top-tier visuals? I didn’t think it was possible without wireless yet. And I was wrong.

Oculus was pretty tight-lipped about Santa Cruz’s specs, but did let us go hands-on with two different demos. The first, Boundless, put me face to face with one of the cutesy aliens from Rift launch title Farlands. It was a pretty simplistic demo, just letting me feed the alien fruit, pat it on the head, play fetch, and so on.

The other, Timestall, was reminiscent of Epic’s notorious Bullet Train demo. I was tasked with protecting a cryogenic pod from an oncoming robot attack, but as the robots approached time…well, stalled. Froze. Whatever. Bullets hung in mid-air, as did bits of shrapnel, a pair of drones, and an enemy robot. I could grab these objects and rearrange them, turning bullets back on their owners, throwing rocks in the path of other bullets, and so on. It was a bit like a puzzle game wrapped inside every action scene from The Matrix.

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