Mobile VR is coming of age (and not a moment too soon)

Good lord, it’s October. When did that happen? I’ve been doing some contract work since April, and that’s now finished. I’d love to talk about it, and I might do that in the near future - bits of the experience were great, but the ending wasn’t quite what I expected. As with the best stories in life, when doors shut, other doors open - it’s going to be an interesting few months. While I’ve been cranking away on other people’s stuff, many cool things have been happening. For example, Oculus just made a lot of noise about their new product, the Oculus Go which is basically an all-in-one Gear VR/Daydream type of thing.

In other words, three degrees of freedom, or 3DOF.

I’m here to tell you, that’s three degrees too few. What you want - nay, need - is six degrees of freedom. That’s why I think the more exciting news has been around the latest iteration of Oculus’ Santa Cruz prototype (that’s one of a set of remarkably similar reviews).

Six degrees of Kevin Bacon?

Nothing to do with Kevin Bacon.

Six degrees of freedom in a VR headset means it tracks both your head orientation and head position. Most mobile VR experiences up to this point just track rotation which is pretty easy to do - you can use a combination of gyroscopes to get pretty accurate tilt measurements in three axes, and use that to figure out which way your head is facing, which is fine right up to the point you move. If you’ve tried Daydream, Gear VR, Cardboard or any other 3DOF VR, this is what you’ve been experiencing. It kinda works, but it feels pretty darn strange, and then you sort of get used to it.

The very first Oculus Rift prototype (the DK1) was a 3DOF headset. I recall putting it on, saying “Wow” a few thousand times, and then telling everyone “when they get positional tracking working, this is going to be awesome”. And then they did, with the DK2, and it really was. Cue the sale of the company for a few billion dollars, and VR going mainstream. Yes, it’s that important. Sure, lots of other technology came of age (displays, PC GPUs, etcetera) but the key thing here is being able to look and move at the same time.

So we’ve had six degrees of freedom on our VR headsets for a while - what’s so special?

Cable management

For anyone who has a Vive or a Rift, you’ll have heard the words “Cable Management”. It’s so critical that people have turned it into a product. My personal cable management process is to have it run over the floor, step on it, get it twisted over my shoulders, nearly choke myself, untwist a few times, and generally live with it. But oh FSM, it’s annoying. Of course, you need the cables to take the data from your meaty PC to the headset itself.

Tracking environment

As well as the cable (which is often affectionately known as the tether), you also have all the tracking paraphernalia. Both Vive and Rift use fixed tracking beacons in the environment (Cameras in the Rift’s constellation, Lighthouses for Vive). These communicate between the headset and the PC to establish the orientation and position of the headset and controllers.

And … gone!

The Santa Cruz does away with both of these things. Sure, there’s undoubtedly trade-offs in place (tracking quality, visual quality, render performance, etc) but they are so, so worth it.

Truly Mobile VR

Since messing around with my DK2 and Kinect “Mobile” VR solution a few years back now, I’ve been telling folks just how awesome truly mobile VR is. A few lucky folks have had the opportunity to try it out, both with the backpack DK2 and with my Tango experiments. Now, everyone else gets to see how wonderful untethered VR is. If you’re a fan of presence, then being without a cable makes an incredible difference.

I was wondering when you’d mention Tango.

Yeah. So, it comes back to this. Tango and Daydream, together, could have - nay, should have - been this product. I assumed (naively, incorrectly, stupidly) that someone smart in Google was aiming for this. And personally, I’m frustrated that it hasn’t happened. But I’m kinda smugly amused that Facebook are getting the jump on this, using the Snapdragon 835 and most likely some derivative of Android to power it.

I’ll be buying one. Or two. And I’ll be using it, hopefully a lot.

Written on October 15, 2017