In time, the first generation of VR headsets has proven to be much better than they were expected to be. The immersive nature of a VR experience negates a lack of image sharpness, tracking technology has improved significantly over the past couple of years and new controller options have allowed the user to perform complex interactions with an experience. Despite this, many of us are left thinking that VR could be even better, if only we could just get rid of the damn wires everywhere.
By and large, cables are a necessary evil for VR; the current graphics and processing requirements of high-end VR experiences have dictated the use of a VR-ready PC (or Mac). The most efficient way to transfer data from a computer to the headset at the required speed is – you guessed it – through a wired connection.
That doesn’t mean we’re forever stuck in a world of tangled wires, however. Taking away the computer, external sensors and cables and packing it all into a headset has been a long-held ambition in the VR world, as this would give the user more freedom of movement and open up the potential for developers to create more immersive experiences. It just hasn’t been feasible – until now.
We are on the cusp of a major sea change in VR, driven by major VR manufacturers making ‘cutting the cord’ their main priority for 2018. The wireless VR headset, therefore, will be a key battleground for the next generation of consumer VR devices.
Which companies are embracing a wire-free future?
One method of stripping the cables out of VR has already been on the market for several months. TPCast makes a range of wireless adaptors, which allows the 1st gen HTC Vive (and now Oculus Rift) to be used as a wireless headset.
Both of the company’s add-ons deliver very low latency (the delay before a transfer of data begins) of less than 2ms between the headset and the computer. The major difference is that the original TPCast comes with a battery pack that sits in a user’s pocket, while the TPCast Plus incorporates everything into a unit that sits on the user’s head. Yet while this frees the user from the inconvenience of wires, it does add extra weight to the headset, making the experience less comfortable than it could be.
HTC has released their own wireless adapter for use with the Vive headset, but the company has gone one further than this in announcing its own wireless VR headset (which is already being sold on pre-order in the Chinese market). This headset notably offers what is known as ‘six degrees of freedom’ (6DoF) – i.e. the ability to track not just head movement but also full-body movement – thanks to a number of sensors built into the unit.
Impressively, its screen resolution (2880 x 1600) betters the original HTC Vive, although the limited processing power available compared to PC-based devices means the benefits of this will be limited. A single controller is also included, offering three degrees-of-freedom (3DoF) hand tracking.
Another Chinese competitor – Lenovo – has meanwhile become the first company to build a wireless VR headset based on Google’s Daydream platform. Like the Vive Focus, it is offering a 110° field of view (FOV) as well as inside-out tracking in the form of Google WorldSense, providing 6DoF headset movement and a 3DoF controller.
The above solutions have tackled issues at the premium end of the market; Oculus – the other major player – is taking a different tack. While trailing wires have never been a problem with cheaper phone-based headsets, the vast differences between manufacturers in terms of mobile phone design means that each headset will rarely support more than a few specific handsets. Moreover, there is nothing yet that natively supports the iPhone, which remains the most popular mobile in the UK.
This is where Oculus’ latest headset comes in. The Oculus Go offers a standalone VR experience at a much lower price point ($200 in the US) than its tethered Rift model, providing users with a portable VR device that doesn’t require them to slot their phones inside to power it.
Yet the Oculus Go remains a low-end device: it falls short of the likes of HTC and Lenovo in terms of the freedom of movement offered (the headset only provides 3DoF rather than 6DoF, meaning it’s only really useful for fixed location navigation). However, as an entry-level device, this promises a more comfortable way to experience VR without breaking the bank.
More on the virtual horizon
While Oculus is looking at the lower end with the Oculus Go, its ambitions are still to compete at the premium end as well. The company’s Santa Cruz headset, which has been in development for more than a year, promises sophisticated inside-out tracking, six degrees of freedom, updated controllers and either come close to – or even match – the processing power of a first generation PC-based headset in a wireless VR
HTC, meanwhile, is currently focused on its beefed-up Vive Pro edition and pushing its wireless adaptor as the way to cut the cable, although it is almost certain that it too is looking at finding that sweet spot where an all-in-one headset can match the resolution and power of a PC-based headset. This won’t happen overnight but, with the money HTC, Oculus and their competitors are able to throw behind R&D, it is progressing quicker than you might expect.
The Vive Focus is currently only
available for order in China
Along with the Mirage Solo wireless headset,
Lenovo has released a 180° VR camera
The Oculus Go headset only offers 3DoF;
the Vive Focus and Mirage Solo offer six