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Intel is helping build a mobile VR headset you can use to walk around a room

The IonVR headset has big dreams and a long way to go

Intel RealSense was in some ways an idea ahead of its time: its depth sensing technology didn't start feeling really necessary until virtual reality came on the scene. But 2016 is the biggest year for VR since the '90s, and Intel doesn't want to miss out. It's partnering with a small headset company called IonVR to create a mobile headset that can map the world (and your hands) without wires, controllers, or external cameras.

IonVR is a relatively new VR device that looks like many other small-batch headsets: a $229 3D-printed box whose front plate can fit smartphones ranging from 4.5 to 6 inches. Its unique selling point is a promise to "nearly eliminate" motion sickness, using a mysterious optical technology called MotionSync. But the Intel partnership adds another big perk. Instead of a normal phone, the company's latest design uses Intel's RealSense Smartphone Developer Kit, an Android-powered prototype whose sensors can gather a dense array of visual information from up to 3 meters away. Applying the principles of Project Tango, Google's experimental spatial mapping technology, IonVR and Intel are planning an ambitious take on mobile VR.

Intel RealSense IonVR

Using the kit requires swapping IonVR's normal clasp (which covers some of the sensors) for a custom front plate that can be popped on and off at will. In return, users get the ability to detect real-world objects in VR and walk around a virtual environment, using the front camera as both a positional tracker and a motion controller. Reach out your hands while wearing the headset, and you'll see them represented as gray point clouds. Walk across a room, and the wall will materialize in a haze of blocky static. Look into a mirror, and... well, let's just say it's very weird to poke a finger at your own pixelated face.

"A controller is great, but we've had controllers since the age of Atari and Nintendo."

"A controller is great, but we've had controllers since the age of Atari and Nintendo," says Paul Zhao, product marketing manager of Intel's Perceptual Computing division. "If you're immersed visually in a virtual world, so should the rest of your interaction, movement as well as hand tracking." Motion controls, wireless headsets, and inside-out positional tracking — the ability to use a head-mounted camera to move around a room, instead of relying on external tracking sensors — are some of the most potentially revolutionary VR technologies. Products like the Gear VR, Leap Motion, and (as of this week) HTC Vive have tackled parts of them, but Intel and IonVR are attempting a self-contained package whose tech could one day simply be baked into smartphones.

Like other super-ambitious indie headsets, though, this is easier said than done. The demos I saw — a painting app and a small 3D environment — still seemed to be in an early state, making it hard to judge how well the system works. The framerate was low enough that whatever MotionSync does, it wasn't enough to stop me from quickly becoming nauseous. There's a gap between "impressive application of limited tech" and "objectively usable product," and IonVR and Intel haven't nearly jumped it yet.

IonVR will ship early this year alongside the Intel RealSense Smartphone Developer Kit, with the goal of attracting developers who will help develop useful applications. I'm personally skeptical that mobile VR can deliver seamless natural motion, especially because no consumer-focused company has made a motion tracker that feels foolproof enough to substitute for a controller, mouse, or touchscreen. But as we move into a year of consumer-ready virtual reality, the medium's weird experiments become more valuable than ever.

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