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Totem, an indie Oculus Rift competitor, promises better virtual reality — but needs money

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The Montreal startup is raising $350K on Kickstarter

There was a chorus of skepticism back in March when a Montreal-based startup announced its Oculus Rift competitor Totem, a virtual reality headset that features a camera over each eye. The startup, Vrvana, had little to show for its work other than renderings, and the announcement came shortly after Facebook's acquisition of Oculus VR, the crowdfunded company behind what is arguably the most successful virtual reality headset to date.

Some called the Totem vaporware; others called it a scam. "Prototype or it didn't happen," one cynic said on Reddit in response to an interview by Vrvana's CEO. "Sounds like a bunch of crud," echoed another.

Six months later, the Totem protoype is here. After showing off a brief demo at the 2014 Game Developers Conference, the company is raising $350,000 on Kickstarter to produce a headset it says will rival the latest version of the Oculus Rift.

The Verge has not had a hands-on with the device, so we can't vouch for its claims. And even though the campaign is a Kickstarter staff pick, backers should know by now that Kickstarter promises can easily fall through. With that in mind, Vrvana's specs for the Totem look pretty good: a crisp picture with a 1080p, full HD OLED display; an HDMI connection that makes the headset compatible with most devices you could play games on; and a 90-degree field of vision.

"There is enough place on the market for more than two gaming VR headset[s]," CEO Bertand Nepveu said in a Reddit question and answer session.

The cameras mounted on the front are what set the Totem apart

The cameras mounted on the front of the headset are what really sets the Totem apart, however. These cameras allow for 360-degree positional tracking, as opposed to the Oculus Rift's 180-degree positional tracking, Vrvana says, which enables more accurate movement and lower latency inside the game. (Update: Oculus's brand new prototype Crescent Bay will feature 360-degree tracking as well.) The cameras also allow gamers to look at the real world without removing the headset. That feature seems to have limited use (it lets you... pause the game and take a sip of Coke?) but it's there.

More exciting perhaps is the prospect of using the cameras for augmented reality, where a game designer could superimpose graphics onto the real world. "Blending base and virtual worlds opens the door to endless possibilities," Vrvana says in its Kickstarter. Of course, augmented reality is still limited by the fact that the headset needs to be plugged in, so any enhanced experience would be limited to one room.

Kickstarter backers can get the Totem headset for around $400, to be delivered in April of 2015. The company expects the headsets will cost $549 at retail.