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Everything we know about Project Santa Cruz and the Oculus Rift 2

By Tyler Lacoma

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The Oculus Rift feels like it’s been around for a lot longer than it actually has. The VR headset was originally launched on Kickstarter back in 2012 — with its eventual consumer launch over two years ago in 2016. But with the launch of HTC’s Vive Pro earlier this year, you may be wondering when Oculus will launch its own version 2.0 of the Rift.

In lieu of showing off the next version of PC-based Oculus Rift, Oculus (and its parent company) have been much more focused on what it calls Project Santa Cruz. Unlike the original Rift, Oculus’ new VR headset is both cordless and stand-alone — making it feel like an altogether different type of headset. This shouldn’t be confused with the Oculus Go, of course, which is a stand-alone, but much more low-powered and affordable headset.

Here’s everything we know about Project Santa Cruz, and what Oculus’ next VR headsets will be like.

The Santa Cruz VR headset

oculus santa cruz hands on 2

Project Santa Cruz was originally teased in 2016 with an early prototype, the goal being to use processors from “regular mobile computation” to achieve a wireless experience comparable to the wired Rift.

We tried it out and were impressed by our time with the headset. The prototype we experienced used a series of four cameras for “inside-out” tracking, which could eliminate the need for setting up external sensors. External sensors are a key consumer barrier for adopting high-end VR tech, and inside-out tracking, where the sensors are on the headset itself, is one of the most promising ways tosolve this particular problem.

You might be wondering how people navigate the real world with this sort of technology. Well, Oculus created a “Guardian” system that sets VR boundaries on the scanned space to keep people safe and warns them about any objects before they can bump into them. Overall we were left excited by the experience, which seemed to be just the sort of improvement upon the original Rift we needed.

The most recent details on Project Santa Cruz VR headset came from 2018’s GDC (Game Developers Conference), where attendees got some new information on Oculus’ highly-anticipated headset.

We know now the headset will have displays with a 72Hz refresh rate, as well as four cameras for positional tracking. We still don’t know the exact panels or resolutions of the displays, but those are two big features to have on a stand-alone headset. The session at GDC also gave us an update of the new controllers, which will have six-degrees-of-freedom (6DoF).

PC-quality VR

Unlike the Oculus Go, which also cuts the cords to deliver a Gear VR-comparable experience, the Santa Cruz seeks to deliver PC-quality VR in a stand-alone package. The original prototype used processors that could be utilized in mobile phones, but the total package managed to deliver inside-out tracking — which is not currently available on mobile VR.

Interestingly, Oculus VP Jason Rubin reported at E3 2018 that their studies show a significant number of people like to sit down to play with their VR headsets (the main reason is, well, they get tired).

“[Sitting in VR] seems contradictory,” Rubin added. “Not the case at all. They love it. That’s a good example of something where nobody at Oculus, when we launched Rift, thought that would be the case. Itisthe case and it’s a significant percentage of players who play seated a lot of the time.”

Rubin raised the point when talking about different styles of VR games people enjoy. The cordless nature of Santa Cruz is likely to make it easier to play in different positions. We don’t yet know what developers will do with this information, but it does raise the possibility of a greater variety of gaming experiences for the next Oculus model. For a look at how Oculus development is trending, check out the experiences currently available for the Oculus Go.

New Oculus Touch controllers

It’s not PC-quality VR without motion controllers, and Oculus has redesigned the Oculus Touch controllers specifically for the Santa Cruz. The controllers, which have wide rings atop their handles, use the infrared LEDs from the original Touch controllers. Four ultra-wide camera sensors in the headset allow for precise head and controller tracking and give the player a wide range of movements while using two controllers.

oculus project santa cruz news knuckles2However, beyond the new Oculus Touch controllers, the way you interact with objects in VR could start getting even more interesting. Oculus recently gave us a look at the next version of the “knuckles” prototype, coming with a new ergonomic design and button layout, as well as the inclusion of a thumbstick. The controller also has finger and palm-detecting new sensors that will enable intricate finger tracking and the ability to squeeze and grip virtual items.

Valve has been quiet about when the controllers will be available to buy, though it looks like the design has been solidified.

Beyond Project Santa Cruz

The “Half Dome” prototype

Oculus Half Dome

At the Facebook F8 developer conference in 2018, we saw another Santa Cruz prototype under the name “Half Dome.” This prototype had a leaner, more compact design than the earlier version we saw, and several very interesting new features.

First, the Half Dome introduced varifocal lenses, which autofocuses the VR images separately to appear more realistic to the eye, basically imitating the way that your eyes focus on objects at the center of your vision while the corners are a bit blurry. This is a promising development for VR headsets, because it can help solve motion blur issues and may reduce the nausea that some people experience in VR environments, especially when trying to examine closer objects. However, it also requires advanced software that wasn’t available with the original Rift.

The prototype also showed off a wider field of view than the original Rift, up from 110 degrees to 140 degrees. This design includes all of your peripheral vision, and when combined with the varifocal display could offer better immersive experiences.

Again, there’s no guarantee that any of these features will make it into a standard product, but it is worth noting that this latest prototype included significant design upgrades.

Advanced VR controls

But even beyond that, Oculus has some other interesting control technology in the works. We’ve found patent filings that Oculus has made for a set of VR gloves that use haptic feedback for a more realistic experience. According to the patent, “The haptic feedback mechanism includes a composite extendible ribbon coupled to a glove digit of a glove body. The glove digit is configured to be work around a [finger] of a user’s hand…The haptic feedback facilitates an illusion that a user is interacting with a real object when in fact the object is a virtual object.”

These gloves are being developed alongside a related Oculus project that is even mimics how our skin moves. That’s not creepy! It just means that these gloves are intended to calibrate themselves via users lifting real-world objects, so they can stretch and compress in the right ways to mimic the experience. This could potentially make digital objects literally feel real.

So, where is the Oculus Rift 2?

At this point, it’s still unclear what Oculus will do the Rift. It has discounted the price of the headset, though there haven’t been any clear indications that a tethered, PC-powered sequel to the Rift is in the works any time soon. The “half-dome” prototype could certainly be using some technology that could be implemented in Oculus’ next tethered VR headset, but we’ll have to wait and see if that turns out to be true.

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