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Oculus Santa Cruz Hands-on: Thrilling and a Little Scary

Oculus is chasing the future of VR. A future that involves walking around in a virtual space sans wires. The company recently announced the $199 Oculus Go, an all-in-one VR solution that will bring wireless VR to the masses. Oculus also revealed more details about Project Santa Cruz, the PC-powered counterpart to Go. I had a chance to go eyes-on with Santa Cruz and I'm genuinely excited.

This latest version of Santa Cruz has gotten some modifications. The bulky patch of circuitry bolted on the back of the headband has been replaced with a series of stretchy bands. That leads me to conclude that somehow Oculus has found a way to fit PC components into the front of the device. But given how light and relatively malleable the majority of the front is, I find that hard to believe.

When I put the headset on, it was nicely balanced making for a comfortable experience. Like every VR headset on the market, Santa Cruz isn't designed for those of us with big hair, so be prepared to do serious hair teasing to get the device to fit properly.

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Thanks to the four integrated sensors on the face of the device, Santa Cruz looks like a more refined version of the HTC Vive. Used for inside-out tracking, the strategically placed sensors have a wide angle of coverage which made for more seamless movements in VR. That meant the sensors had a better time of tracking my spastic movements with the controllers as I played fetch with a mythical creature, fed it fruit and scratched on top of its head and below its chin.

Speaking of the controllers, I'm impressed with just how light and comfortable they are. The potential evolution of the Touch controllers, they just felt right in my hands. The bottom-mounted bumper has been moved to side of the devices, fitting right under the curve of your fingers. The glossy black touchpads are positioned right below your thumbs. They're slight changes, but those ergonomic changes made for more intuitive hand gestures.

So what's it like walking around in VR sans tether? Honestly, it's both thrilling and scary. On one hand, it's extremely liberating to walk around a space without worrying about tripping over a cord or inadvertently yanking the cable from the PC or pulling the entire system over. It was all I could do to not start singing "I've Got No Strings." The image quality is on a par with the better experience you'll find on Oculus Rift. During one demo, where I was tasked with protecting the last human from a barrage of bullets and meteoroids. Details were sharp enough that I could see the sparks as a redirected bullets into the chassis of an attacking robot.

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But as bothersome as the Rift's cords could be, they also acted as a physical object that helped establish a boundary. Without it, I had to rely on the based Guardian system to prevent me from taking a spill. That realization made those first steps in tetherless VR a bit more cautious than usual. True, the grid immediately popped up when I got to close to the edges of the play space, but I'm curious how much Guardian can actually guard against. For instance, what happens if my dog saunters into the room or if there's someone watching me play? Will the system have the ability to detect them and warn me accordingly?

When I asked Nate Mitchell, Co-Founder and Vice President of Product at Oculus, he had this to say. "We want to keep people super safe. We're not talking about all the specifics because for us, Project Santa Cruz is a demonstration of the technology. It's not consumer ready today. This isn't something that we're shipping out there. What I can say is that our goal is making sure you can toss it in your bag and you can enjoy a VR experience where you feel safe. There's a bunch of different ways to tackle that Guardian-like experience -- we're exploring a bunch of them."

So for now, Santa Cruz offers a tantalizing peek into the potential of Oculus and virtual reality's second act. But if Oculus has its way, we might be a hop, skip and a jump away from cutting the cord on virtual reality.