Intel bets on 'merged reality' for its Project Alloy VR headset

In August of this year, Intel chief executive Brian Krzanich appeared onstage during the company’s developers conference wearing a clunky VR headset. He then participated in a live demo that involved using a dollar bill to cut through (virtual) chunks of gold. The headset was called Project Alloy, Krzanich said, and Intel was officially working with Microsoft on the device to offer a "merged reality" experience.

With the race to get humans wearing face computers heating up, it’s no surprise that Intel decided to join the likes of Samsung, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Sony, HTC, Qualcomm, and others in creating a solution that could hopefully, possibly, maybe, help VR make the leap from ultra-nerdy to sorta-mainstream. And after having missed the boat on mobile, Intel is trying to ensure that it’s well-positioned for the next big wave of computing.

Intel’s pitch with Project Alloy is that it has figured out a way to offer a PC-like VR experience without the need to tether the headset to a computer system. The reference design has two processors, Intel’s RealSense 3D cameras, and a detachable, rechargeable battery. The first headset that ships will be based on Microsoft’s Windows Holographic desktop software.

Okay. So what’s "merged reality"?

Vjeran Pavic

It’s a good question, and it’s one I’ve been asking ever since Intel first dropped the term this summer. Fortunately, Intel was willing to let The Verge into its labs and let us try on an early version of a Project Alloy headset to get a better sense of how it works.

In short, merged reality means you can see real-world stuff in front of you, even while you’re wearing a full headset. The RealSense cameras on the headset capture images of the things in front of you and project them back into your virtual environment in milliseconds. If Microsoft’s HoloLens headset creates a layer of augmented reality on top of the real world, and Oculus Rift blocks you out entirely from the real world, Project Alloy falls into a bizarre place somewhere in between.

While I was wearing the Project Alloy headset, I could still see my Verge colleagues Vjeran and Tyler standing nearby. I could use a physical pen as a tool within a virtual game. If someone handed me a piece of paper and a pen, I could still see well enough write a note with it — while I had the VR headset on. I could check the time on a real, physical watch. I could even take a selfie with my phone while wearing the headset.

Vjeran Pavic

Arguably, this type of virtual-world-meets-real-world interaction is safer because you’re able to see people and objects in front of you, even while your head is enveloped in a giant face computer. Project Alloy also eliminates the need for additional sensors or hand controllers in order to have an interactive experience. I played an interactive Raiders of the Lost Ark-type game in a dark room while wearing the Samsung Gear VR headset, but the room was filled with sensors that made interacting with the room possible. My mind was blown the first time I tried Oculus Rift and Oculus Touch together, throwing balls and other objects into a virtual void, but I was also using hand controllers.

The Project Alloy headset I tried was only version one, though, and it was easy to see why Intel isn’t rolling this one out to market. The prototype was ill-fitting on my head, with enough room on the underside to see the (real) floor below me. Headset fit, like headphones, is too subjective to judge harshly, but it felt heavy, too. Intel says an ideal weight for a headset built off the Project Alloy reference design is 750 grams, or around 1.5 pounds.

The real-life objects I saw before me while I was wearing the headset — my hands waving in the frame, an Intel employee standing in the lab — were pixelated. Heads floated in and out of frame, depending on how close I was standing to a person in real life. Interactions with these digitized humans in my virtual world had a slightly morbid element to them, as though I was watching an old, low-quality home movie of someone waving and smiling at the camera; not really knowing if that person existed in real life or not.

Vjeran Pavic

It was more of a conceptual experience than a demo of a finished product, a half-glimpse at what could be.

But Tim Parker, Intel’s vice president and GM of marketing for perceptual computing, insists that next year’s Project Alloy, the one that it plans to ship in the second half of 2017, will offer a better experience. The one I tried runs on an Intel Core processor built on last year’s Skylake architecture and uses an Atom chip for compute vision. These will be upgraded to a Kaby Lake processor and a chip from Movidius, which Intel acquired this fall. The two R200 RealSense cameras used in the current headset will be upgraded to one single 400 series RealSense camera, shown off at the same developers conference earlier this year. And the real Project Alloy headset will include the option for a discrete graphics card.

So far, Microsoft is the only company that has publicly committed to working with Intel on Project Alloy, although the idea is that this VR solution will be intriguing — and unique — enough to attract other potential partners. Intel is becoming well-known for making neat tech demos that don’t always find traction in the real world, and Project Alloy could absolutely become another one of those.

At the same time, if anyone is going to figure out how to strike the right balance between just-okay mobile VR and heavy-duty tethered VR headsets, it might as well be Intel, one of the world’s largest chipmakers. Intel knows there’s no way to win the virtual reality game if you don’t play, and so we have Project Alloy. As unfinished as it is, it’s still fun to slip in and out of reality with it.

Photos by Vjeran Pavic.

Video by Vjeran Pavic and Tyler Pina.

Comments

So, is this supposed to run on Windows Holographic?

Yes it is

It feels like a beginningof the next big thing!

One thing remains to be seen uis who will emerge Victorious

@Aditya did you had the chance to try HoloLens? HoloLens IS the next big thing and it is already there. The only thing it really needs is a larger field of view but it is the biggest innovation since the modern smartphone. Business and private use cases are endless if you think about it, which is not the case of VR.

Pure VR solutions are very limited (mostly to gaming) compared to what you can do with Holographic computers like HoloLens which can do VR+AR. Intel’s idea of this intermediate "closed headset with cameras to mimic an open headset" makes not much sense, let’s better use an open headset. It’s that simple. What’s the point of having a camera watching your hands and watch instead of your eyes directly?

I can’t wait to see HoloLens 2 and more devices like it in 2017!
(Magic Leap also someday but they seems late to the party since thousands of HoloLens are currently shipping every week)

vr devices like rift/vive and ar devices like hololens have different main strengths and weaknesses.
VR can be WAY more immersive when one wants to be really taken to another place, like for sight seeing, estate exploring, playing a fully immersive game in a different (game world), watch a movie or similar experience in VR.
An AR device like Hololens can’t achieve the same level of immersion into a different world/place because it simply can’t fade out the real world as well, the projected imagery does not fully fade out the surrounding real world.
At the same time, this weakness regarding full immersion in a different, virtual place, is of course a strength when one actually does not want to be fully immersed in a different world but rather have the existing real world be fully visible with some additional virtual stuff projected "on top" of it.
So both have different use cases they are best at/for.

Besides that, i find Hololens very neat, too in theory, but the small field of view and extremely high price and limited rollout in average stores/widely distributed shopping channels automatically limits it’s mass market reach right now and forever until addressed.

Hey if Intel wants to go down that path. Windows Holographic will support it and any other headset. Whether it is MR, AR or VR.

I Agree. Magic Leap is probably too late to the race, especially in terms of Software.

This device has some interesting feature prospects to it, for some game/app types it could be very handy to project your actual hands into it once that works flawlessly and fast
and also to project other people into it.
Where i see a big weakness in both this and hololens is that they don’t come with good controllers on the level of the vive or rift touch controllers.
In theory it may be all nice and dandy to use only your hands for gestures or the most basic clicker type of device, in reality it is very imprecise and gets tiring quickly and is error prone in detecting wrong gestures and is very limiting in the depth of controls one can have.

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