Hands-on: Oculus Santa Cruz proves stunning wireless VR isn't a pipe dream

There are still some kinks to work out, but Oculus's self-contained Santa Cruz headset feels amazing.

Credit: Oculus

Going into my hands-on demo with Oculus’ Project Santa Cruz headset, think I forgot how it felt to be surprised by virtual reality. We’re coming up on three years since the last major advance in VR, which I’m going to peg as the first time I tried the HTC Vive’s room-scale experience. Since then we’ve seen a few refinements—Oculus Rift’s built-in headphones and lighter form factor, the remarkably comfortable and intuitive Oculus Touch controllers—but the fundamental tech has stayed pretty similar to the Vive demo I saw in 2015.

And I guess I got complacent. I forgot about—well, articles like this, where I wrote about waving back to a virtual alien. That feeling of seeing something really new.

That feeling came rushing back during my Project Santa Cruz demo yesterday, as I closed out my day at the fourth annual Oculus Connect. It’s incredible.

[ Further reading: HTC Vive vs. Oculus Rift vs. Windows Mixed Reality: What's the difference? ]

Oculus Santa Cruz hands-on

I thought we were further away from wireless VR, I guess. Not Samsung Gear VR-quality mobile wireless. We’ve had that for a while, and the newly announced $199 Oculus Go headset (releasing in early 2018) seems to be a continuation of that ecosystem without the dependence on a separate phone purchase. That space has done some impressive things on mobile architecture, but it’s still phone-quality apps. Mobile VR is fairly simple, fairly small, and limited by the hardware—meaning no position tracking of either the headset or separate controllers.

HTC Vive + Deluxe Audio Strap IDG / Hayden Dingman

PC-based VR headsets like the HTC Vive shown here have thick cables on the back that connect to your computer.

Oculus CTO John Carmack has been bullish on wireless VR for a while though, and for good reason. Cords suck. The tether built into the current generation of Rift and Vive headsets isn’t that distracting, but it’s just annoying enough to occasionally take you out of the experience and kill an otherwise fantastic moment.

But a desktop-quality VR experience with full position-tracking, hand controllers, a smooth frame rate, and top-tier visuals? I didn’t think it was possible without wireless yet. And I was wrong.

Oculus was pretty tight-lipped about Santa Cruz’s specs, but did let us go hands-on with two different demos. The first, Boundless, put me face to face with one of the cutesy aliens from Rift launch title Farlands. It was a pretty simplistic demo, just letting me feed the alien fruit, pat it on the head, play fetch, and so on.

The other, Timestall, was reminiscent of Epic’s notorious Bullet Train demo. I was tasked with protecting a cryogenic pod from an oncoming robot attack, but as the robots approached time...well, stalled. Froze. Whatever. Bullets hung in mid-air, as did bits of shrapnel, a pair of drones, and an enemy robot. I could grab these objects and rearrange them, turning bullets back on their owners, throwing rocks in the path of other bullets, and so on. It was a bit like a puzzle game wrapped inside every action scene from The Matrix.

Neither was incredibly complicated per se, but I will tell you this: They looked great. Maybe not Intel Core i7 and a GeForce GTX 1080 Ti great, but certainly on par with the lower spec Oculus-ready machines—maybe one equipped with a GTX 1060? Or even slightly better.

That’s the impression I got from the demo, anyway. An impression that was helped, I should note, by what seems like a higher-resolution screen. As I said, Oculus was tight-lipped when it came to specs so I don’t have any numbers for you to dissect. I’d feel safe wagering it matches or exceeds the Oculus Go’s new 2560x1440 display. In any case, the image seemed a lot crisper than my current Rift and Vive headsets.

So Santa Cruz provided an experience on par with a low-to-mid tier PC, and Oculus packed it into a device the same size as the current Rift. Last year’s Santa Cruz prototype had a miniature computer fastened to the back of the headband, but this new iteration seemingly packs all the electronics into the visor.

oculus santa cruz 2 Oculus

Oculus Santa Cruz.

This would seem to raise Problem #2: Weight. I’ve tried a couple of standalone headset prototypes in the past few years from VR start-up companies hoping to stand out. But inevitably I’d get there, try on the headset, and it would weigh something like 10 pounds, with all the weight concentrated on my nose and also a giant hot battery pack on the back of my head or whatever.

Oculus Santa Cruz? Totally comfortable. I didn’t have a Rift to A/B test with but I feel safe saying Santa Cruz is heavier (and understandably so). That said, the weight is expertly balanced. I didn’t feel any strain on my neck, no uncomfortable pressure on the crown of my head or the bridge of my nose, nothing. It actually reminded me of the Vive with the new Deluxe Audio Strap—still noticeably heavy, but with enough grace you don’t really think twice about it after a minute or two.

The headphones are maybe my favorite change though. Or rather, the lack of headphones. Gone are the large on-ear discs that debuted with the Rift’s consumer model. Both Oculus Go and Santa Cruz use a new “spatial audio” system, building speakers into the side of the headset—resting on your temples, basically. And this will sound weird until you try it, but: It honestly felt like I was wearing headphones, even though I wasn’t. Like some sort of weird ventriloquist headphones.

oculus go spatial audio Adam Patrick Murray/IDG

The built-in speakers, shown on the Oculus Go.

Audio fidelity is probably lower than even the current on-ear headphones, but the added convenience of putting the headset on and the audio just working offsets the lowered quality for me. There’s also a 3.5mm jack for those who want crisper audio though, as well as volume controls on the bottom of the headset—something I could’ve used in the current Oculus Rift iteration.

Wireless VR isn’t perfect yet

Now for the middling and the not-so-great. And as with any pre-release hardware, keep in mind that this hardware is still very much in development. Santa Cruz dev kits won’t go out until sometime in 2018, and if past Oculus behavior is anything to go by there will be a further refinement of the hardware before it hits consumers—probably in 2019 at the earliest, if I had to guess.

Like Microsoft’s upcoming slate of Windows Mixed Reality headsets, Oculus Santa Cruz relies on inside-out tracking by way of cameras embedded in the front of the headset. But where Microsoft uses two cameras, Santa Cruz uses four arrayed around the edges of the HMD.

oculus santa cruz sensors Oculus

Oculus Santa Cruz relies on four sensors in the headset itseld instead of external base stations.

I’ll note this: I didn’t have any problems with the headset tracking, which is more than I can say of my Windows Mixed Reality demo last month. (That demo had me standing eight feet above the “ground” by the time I was done.) Santa Cruz tracked the room without issue, and even popped up the usual blue-grid Guardian system when I got too close to a wall. I fell in love with moving around the room, quicker and more worry-free than I’d ever move with a tether attached. That’s the magic of wireless.

I did have some troubles with the hand tracking though. With four cameras Santa Cruz can track a much larger area within which your hands register—almost perpendicular to the headset in any direction, including up and down. That’s way better than Microsoft’s implementation, where I felt like my hands had to be directly in front of my face at all times.

oculus santa cruz 1 Oculus

Oculus Santa Cruz.

There are still dead spots though. Move your hands outside your field of vision and there’s no longer any camera to track your movements. Like Microsoft, Oculus apparently relies on software plus the controller sensors—the accelerometer and such—to project where it thinks your hands have moved. The longer your hands are outside the field of view, the less accurate this projection will get.

It wasn’t a big deal in our demos. Frozen bullets and a glorified Tamogotchi aren’t the most intensive activities. I still think people will notice the disconnect in games like Superhot though, or something like tennis where your hand is often out of your immediate field of vision. There’s a weird uncanny valley-type feeling when your hand isn’t registered precisely where you know your hand is in real life, and while I think Santa Cruz’s inside out tracking is leagues better than Microsoft’s headsets it still isn’t as precise as the current Rift and Vive setups, which rely on external base stations.

The new controllers themselves will also take some getting used to. Oculus Touch is probably the most comfortable controller I’ve ever used. Touch Redux/Santa Cruz Touch? Not quite as comfy. My main issue is that everything is a bit smaller, with the face buttons reduced to mini-M&M size and the analog sticks replaced by Vive-style trackpads. As someone with larger hands, the new controllers feel a little undersized, and they’ve definitely been designed to focus on the thumb, trigger, and grip more than the face buttons this time around.

Trackpads might also throw a wrench in anyone’s plans for free-movement systems (i.e. more like traditional video games). Those are much harder to manage without analog sticks. Expect more teleport-style locomotion.

And one last surprise: The new Touch controllers are significantly lighter weight. First-gen Touch is reassuringly heavy, in part because the controllers run on AAs. From the weight of the new prototypes I can almost guarantee the new models have built-in rechargeable batteries, though Oculus wouldn’t comment because the controllers “might change before launch.” The lighter weight is likely to be a good thing once you get used to it—less stress on the wrists and forearms—though during my demo I felt like I might let loose and throw one by accident.

Oculus Santa Cruz: Bottom line

I’m properly excited about virtual reality for the first time in at least a year though.

oculus santa cruz 3 Oculus

Oculus Santa Cruz.

I still use the Vive fairly often, but only dig the Rift out for Oculus’s exclusives—and even then I sometimes can’t be bothered. Both headsets are getting long in the tooth, both could use a refresh (particularly the displays), and while Santa Cruz is really “something else entirely” and not a true Rift successor I agree with Carmack that this is the future of VR. Untethered headsets are the way to go.

Other issues need to be worked out ahead of launch. Tracking still needs to be refined, the controllers could use another pass, and we still don’t know anything about the battery life of the headset. That’s going to be an important concern. There’s no real use going wireless if it only runs for an hour at a time.

Those are concerns for a future Oculus Connect though, or maybe GDC 2018? For now, all I can say is Oculus Santa Cruz outperformed my expectations. Wireless VR isn’t just coming—it’s here. 

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Hayden Dingman

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