Next year, developers will start playing with Oculus’ next-generation VR headset: a wireless system codenamed Santa Cruz. Facebook VR chief Hugo Barra stresses that Santa Cruz is a prototype, not a commercial product. But he tells The Verge it’s “very representative” of where the company is going, and “realizable” as a consumer headset. So in a few years, Oculus hopes to offer something that delivers a lot of high-end Rift features, but without any of the complicated setup, or the need for a separate PC.
At this year’s Oculus Connect show, the company hustled reporters through a quick Santa Cruz demonstration, looking to show that the technology works. As always, these demos were highly controlled, tailored to highlight Santa Cruz’s strengths and avoid showing its flaws. But as far as I can tell, Santa Cruz does work. It’s the most promising VR headset I’ve tried this year, even if it’s way too early to get excited about a consumer release.
Like last year’s Santa Cruz prototype, this headset looks a lot like a wireless Rift, and tracks movement with wide-angle cameras around its edges. Oculus has introduced a softer shape with rubber straps, as well as a pair of motion controllers, which are equipped — like the existing Oculus Touch controllers — with infrared LEDs that those cameras can track.
While it’s hard to make direct comparisons in such a short demo, Santa Cruz feels heavier than the Rift, but not as chunky or front-loaded as Oculus’ Gear VR. The screen and field of view feel comparable to the Rift’s, and the controllers have similar ergonomics to Touch, although the layout is simplified and the half-moon tracking strip has been flipped above the wearer’s hands, so it’s easier for a head-mounted camera to see.
Technically, I got two demos with Santa Cruz: a hangout session with Oculus’ dog-like alien “mascot” Bogo, and a shootout in the Rift’s Wild West gunslinging game Dead and Buried. Both felt almost indistinguishable from using a Rift. I suffered a couple of tiny glitches — the ground seemed indescribably “off” for one split second when I was picking up a stick, and my hands would drift if I put them at the very edge of my peripheral vision — but for any natural motion the games required, I was fine.
This may not reflect Santa Cruz’s real-world performance, since Oculus put me in a well-lit room with a patterned floor, offering lots of edges for a tracking camera to detect. But Santa Cruz matched the Rift’s tracking capabilities there, and was actually better than the Rift’s basic two-camera setup, which can’t track controllers if you’re blocking its view.
The experience felt comparable to using Microsoft’s Windows Mixed Reality headsets, which also feature inside-out tracking and motion controllers. But Santa Cruz offers the freedom of a truly wireless headset, and Oculus’ controllers are far more comfortable and less cluttered than Microsoft’s. (I only used the triggers in my demo, though, so I haven’t tested the trackpad — which, since it’s a major new feature, is a little frustrating.) By contrast, it’s a lot more developed than Google’s inside-out tracking headset, at least when I tried it earlier this year.
Santa Cruz is less powerful than a VR-ready PC, although its exact hardware is a mystery. Neither of my demos featured large or semi-photorealistic environments, so I’m not sure just how big the performance gap is. Barra says developers can deliver “very similar experiences to what they get on Rift,” but with a lower polygon count and less “scene complexity.” I talked to a couple of developers during Rift demos later, and both seemed confident about porting their games to Santa Cruz, with some optimization.
The Rift and Gear VR are powered by computers and phones, but we don’t know how Santa Cruz’s operating system will work, or how open it will be. “You've seen some of the things that we've done on Rift recently to enable users, especially power users — if they want to bring apps from other sources, they can,” said Barra, when I asked if Oculus’ mobile headsets would be walled gardens. “We're pretty committed to that notion, because we just love the fact that power users love our platform.”
Barra says that we’ll be learning more about Santa Cruz in a few months, and developers ought to be using it soon after that. For now, it really does feel like a rough version of a functional consumer headset. In fact, I’d be happy to use it right now — if (and that’s a big if) its everyday performance is as good as my demos.