Intel’s Project Alloy is an interesting experiment: a self-contained “merged reality” headset that mixes elements of real life into virtual reality. When we tried the first-generation prototype, though, it was in a very early state. Well, Intel is back with a new demo, and we’re still in the early days — but that’s still pretty exciting.
Intel says the Alloy headset at CES is its third generation, and it’s supposed to feature improved tracking, among other incremental upgrades. However, it still hasn’t made the changes that Intel mentioned last year: a chip from recently acquired computer vision company Movidius; the transition from two RealSense cameras to a single, wide-angle RealSense 400 series one; and a seventh-generation Kaby Lake processor. It looks very similar to the previous design, which means it’s big, clunky, and not particularly comfortable. But it’s still very impressive to walk around with no wires or external trackers, something I’ve only done in a handful of headsets.
My demo was short, and it didn’t include the complex real-world interactions Intel showcased last year. (My colleague Lauren Goode also tried the first generation instead of me, so I can’t comment on any improved performance.) Instead, it mostly focused on Alloy’s inside-out tracking, and its ability to map virtual environments that reflected real obstacles. In this case, the Alloy team had pre-scanned a room full of furniture with a separate RealSense camera, although it’s also possible to do this with the headset. Once I put the headset on, a small, fenced-in metal platform appeared around me, with props strategically placed where I might bump into things — a coffee table, for example, became a round, screen-equipped... sci-fi coffee table, effectively.
Coffee table, meet sci-fi coffee table
It was less outright merged reality than virtual reality informed by spatial awareness, but again, that’s impressive. The relatively simple graphics were rendered crisply and smoothly, although the headset was so heavy I had to hold it up to get the best angle.
Project Alloy’s inside-out VR tracking is the second-best I’ve seen, after Oculus’ Santa Cruz prototype. There’s only a little of the “swimminess” I’ve experienced in some other headsets at CES — the unreal feeling you get when the tracking camera doesn’t quite pick up small motions like leaning. But unlike Santa Cruz, where it’s almost impossible to tell you’re not using traditional trackers, the experience is distinctly worse than current tethered headsets like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive.
It doesn’t help that the controller Intel brought to CES, which simulates a virtual gun, doesn’t have full motion tracking. It only translates rotation, and for me, the gun never felt oriented in quite the same direction as my real hand. As small flying robots began to appear and I had to shoot them, this stopped me from getting completely immersed in the experience, even though the weapon was responsive and easy to aim. Intel says that full tracking is possible, but here, the lack of it is distracting.
Intel isn’t directly bringing Project Alloy to market, but it says at least one unnamed partner will be releasing a finished version later this year. If what we’re seeing at CES is any indication, there’s still a lot to fix before then, but also a lot of promise.