SAN FRANCISCO — Strap on a virtual reality headset these days, and you're immediately transported to a virtual world that unfolds before you with stunning clarity. Just don't try to walk anywhere — that VR headset is likely tethered to a PC limiting your movements to a confined area. And if you want to interact with anything in that VR world, you're going to need some sort of controller to grab, push or pick up any virtual objects you see.
"To me, the funny thing is, that's not a virtual world," said Intel CEO Brian Krzanich during his keynote kicking off the annual Intel Developer Forum here. "It doesn't feel very virtual when you're tied to a confined space."
Intel hopes to cut the cord with Project Alloy, the wireless virtual reality headset unveiled today (August 16) at IDF. Billed as an all-in-one virtual reality product, Project Alloy will become available to hardware makers in the second half of 2017 when Intel opens up the hardware platform along with APIs for the RealSense technology that eliminates the need for external sensors to create a VR world.
A self-contained VR headset would be welcomed enthusiastically by anyone who's ever found themselves tripping over the cord that connects them to a supporting PC, spent time setting up external sensors or struggled to find an open area to enjoy VR to its fullest. But that's only part of the vision Krzanich outlined today. The company is using its Project Alloy headset to push the idea of merged reality, where the physical world interacts seamlessly with the virtual one and the only controls you need are your very own hands.
Here's a closer at five ways Intel thinks Project Alloy is going to change virtual reality.
• It's Going to Be Wireless: Donning a Project Alloy headset for a demo, Intel's Craig Raymond was able to wander about the IDF keynote stage with no restrictions on his movement. (To be fair, Raymond wasn't entirely wire-free — a cable was plugged into his headset so that the virtual objects he was seeing could be viewed on a big screen by the IDF audience.)
That means greater freedom of movement, but it could also mean bumping into furniture or confused bystanders. Not to worry: whenever Raymond wandered too close to Krzanich, the Intel CEO would pop into the virtual world as a sort of visual warning that objects in the real world were getting uncomfortably nearby.
• No External Sensors: We're big fans of HTC's Vive headset, but taking advantage of that device's room-tracking features means a fairly involved setup as you place base stations around a room. One of the biggest criticisms in the Tom's Guide review of the Vive, in fact, is that the headset requires a lot of space and electrical outlets if you want to use it.
That doesn't figure to be an issue with Intel's Alloy headset. You don't need to set up external sensors or cameras since Intel plans to include RealSense cameras on the device itself. Besides allowing for more immersive experiences that let you roam from room to room as you explore virtual environments, it also should simplify setup.
• Your Hands are Your Controls: Rather than rely on a physical controller like the ones that ship with existing headsets from Oculus and HTC, Project Alloy is powered by your hands. The RealSense camera on the headset show your hands whenever you move them into view. And using your hands, you can interact with virtual objects.
That's the theory, anyhow; in practice, this feature seems like it needs more fine tuning based on Intel's Project Alloy demo. Raymond could hold up his hands behind a virtual x-ray machine and they appeared as bones, wiggling as he moved his fingers around in the real world. Pushing a virtual switch with his hands took a little bit more effort than Raymond probably would have liked on a stage full of onlookers, but after a couple of attempts, Raymond was able to press it.
• Virtual World Meets the Physical One: When your using your hands to push buttons and grab virtual objects, you've already introduced real-world interactions into a VR setting. Project Alloy figures to go beyond that though, as Raymond used a folded up dollar bill to sculpt a virtual gold statue as it spun around a lathe.
That's just the start, Krzanich hinted. "We can flip that, and take the virtual world into the real world," he said.
• A Big Role for 360-Degree Video: After talking up Alloy, Krzanich turned his attention to Intel's 360-degree replay technology. If you've watched a sporting event like the NBA Finals, you've seen this in action: it's the technology that can pause a replay and rotate the point of view like something out of The Matrix so you can see the rest of the play from a different angle.
Part of Intel's vision for merged reality is the ability to change positions within a virtual world so that you get a full picture of your surroundings, and the same technology behind those 360-degree replays looks like it will play a role here.
Intel is polishing its virtual reality cred at a time a lot of tech giants are stepping up their focus on VR. At its own developer conference earlier this year, Google unveiled Project Daydream, its new VR platform; the first smartphones built to support Daydream are just now hitting the market. HoloLens, Microsoft's augmented reality headset, is in the hands of developers, and Microsoft says that all new Windows 10 machines will work with both the headset and Windows Holographic apps next year. Even Apple has started hinting at efforts in AR, with CEO Tim Cook telling Wall Street analysts that his company is investing in the technology.
Intel, though, may be uniquely positioned to impose itself on future VR products merely by the fact that it makes a lot of the components other companies need for their own products. It's no accident that Krzanich capped off the Alloy presentation by noting that Intel would open up its VR efforts to developers next year or that Intel's CEO was joined on stage today by Microsoft's Terry Myerson to announce the two companies would team up on mixed reality standards. Intel says it's working with Microsoft to optimize Windows content on Intel-based VR hardware.
The vision outlined by Intel isn't quite ready for prime time, but a future when our virtual and physical worlds spill into each other is getting closer. And when they do, it'll be without wires.