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We tried Oculus’ bonkers, room-scale, standalone VR headset

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This could be the future of VR

One of the bigger surprises at the Oculus Connect 3 keynote was the announcement that Oculus is working on a wireless, self-contained virtual reality device that use inside-out tracking to allow the player to walk around the room in VR without wires or hindrances.

Imagine a version of Gear VR that doesn’t use your phone while giving you a room-scale virtual reality experience, and you get the idea. The Gear VR doesn’t even know if you lean forward, but Santa Cruz — which is Oculus’ name for the prototype hardware — allows you to get up and walk around. A blue grid appears when you get too close to a wall.

“We’re not going too much into details,” Nate Mitchell, Oculus’ VP of product, told Polygon. “It has a built-in computer on the headset and you know, it handles tracking with sensors on the headset that look out at the scene around you.”

I was able to try the device in a somewhat secret room at Oculus Connect 3, I and was a bit surprised to walk into a completely furnished bedroom. The hardware itself is an early prototype, and I wasn’t allowed to touch it myself as it was placed on my head.

But I was treated to two very simple VR demos — a space station and a sort of mini-city with cardboard cutout people running around and interacting with each other — and I could walk around and explore each scene without wires, and with full depth tracking. I bent down to look through a window; I stretched up to look over a railing. The tracking in 3D space was perfect, with no warbles or distortions.

You don’t need QR codes or any stationary objects to use as a point of reference. And I was told the hardware didn’t need to have the environment built into it virtually to aid the tracking; I was told it would work in any room, but low light may give it some issues.

“It absolutely can work in any environment, however it has its own limitations,” Mitchell explained. “If you turn off all the lights in the room, I don’t think it works.”

The goal is to make the tracking reliable so it always works, and doesn’t leave you with a bad experience. “We don’t want you to hang up QR codes, and if we took it to your bedroom, it should work,” he continued. “And that’s basically what you’ll see today.”

And I did see it. I used it. The hardware works, and it was amazing to be able to walk around the room with no wires or cables or external sensors that needed to be mounted to the wall. This is a very early prototype — no pictures were allowed — but it’s an exciting glimpse of where virtual reality may be going.