Santa Cruz: First impressions of the standalone Oculus Rift VR headset

Oculus Santa Cruz is an exciting glimpse into the future of virtual reality
First look: Oculus Rift Santa Cruz

During the Oculus Connect 3 keynote, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg revealed a new project that no one was expecting to hear about: a standalone Oculus Rift headset, codenamed Santa Cruz.

In a secret back room, Oculus proudly showed off its fragile new baby and we were lucky enough to try out a short demo. Photos, video and voice recordings of Santa Cruz weren't allowed, and handling the device was a big fat no-no.

Just like the very first Rift, many things are bound to change as the developers figure out ways to improve the device. At the moment however, it looks exactly like the one in the video shown off during the keynote.

I was told the design resembles Rift because devs are using that as a starting point. There were no sensors whatsoever placed around the room, and of course no wires protruding from the device either. The front face plate held four cameras while a battery and unspecified components were found on the back, held together by duct tape (classic prototype sign). Despite this extra weight, I could hardly feel it.

An additional band sat above the top adjustable band to relay information from the back to the front of the headset. No details could be given regarding how it would look in the future.

The demo itself involved a three minute jaunt around a cartoon world to show off the camera's inside-out tracking. The guardian system would also pop up if I was too close to the wall or a couch, similar to the HTC Vive's chaperone grid. With the sensors inside the device, I was able to lean in and look closer at the cartoony pigeons, flowers and even inside a window.

The graphics weren't stunning, but fairly well done. The demo also wasn't streaming in from an outer source, rather it was already pre-installed beforehand onto the headset. I did notice a slight jutter on the bottom of the screen but I expect it will be gone by the time the Santa Cruz is primed and ready.

Great VR is closer than ever

Santa Cruz's announcement was surprising because we all thought untethered headsets, especially VR ones, would take several years to show up. Microsoft HoloLens is the closest we've seen so far, with its mixed reality offering, but it's still not ready for consumers just yet.

In fact HoloLens' snail pace is a clear indicator that it will be some time before we see Santa Cruz's final form. Regardless, it once again feels like the early days of waiting around for the 'next great thing' from VR.

Read next: Oculus chief scientist Michael Abrash on the future of VR

From now onward, it's a slow and steady pace fraught with games and experiences without new hardware. The news about the standalone headset is perfect timing for Oculus to show that it is still innovating.

Yes, it's early days, but it's certainly a welcome vision of the future and an impressive effort by Oculus.

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