Chip giant Intel officially unveiled its very own virtual reality (VR) headset at its developer conference in San Francisco Tuesday. However, Project Alloy, as the headset is being called, won’t actually compete head-to-head with the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive. Instead, it’s meant to be a reference design for other manufacturers — and a long-term bet to keep Intel relevant in the nascent virtual reality space.
Project Alloy is at its core a standalone headset that works without any external computer, and also doesn’t require users to plug in their own mobile phones. This sets it apart from both the more expensive Rift-type VR hardware and cheaper mobile VR headsets like Samsung’s Gear VR.
In addition to its own computing chips, Alloy also packs a number of camera sensors that make it possible to use one’s own hands as controllers. Alloy is also capable of recognizing elements of the space around a user, which means that you’ll be able to play a game in your living room without inadvertently bumping into your coffee table. Intel has been developing this kind of sensor technology under the RealSense moniker for some time.
However, Intel won’t be selling consumers Alloy headsets any time soon. The company is instead looking to open source the Alloy design next year, and allow third parties to build their own headsets based on Intel’s reference design. The company is also collaborating with Microsoft to bring some of its technology to Alloy-based headsets. Earlier this summer, Microsoft announced plans to bring the holographic technology that powers its own HoloLens headset to third-party devices.
So why is Intel throwing its head in the VR ring if it doesn’t actually want to build its own consumer headsets? Because it wants other manufacturers to use its chips, and that’s currently far from certain.
High-end headsets like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive are already often powered by Intel, since the company’s chips are at the core of many gaming PCs. However, mobile VR headsets like Samsung’s Gear VR use phones to do the heavy lifting, and mobile has long been a sore spot for Intel, as most phones are powered by ARM chips.
The future of virtual reality is still very much undecided: Will consumers flock to stationary, more capable but also more expensive headsets? Or will they instead embrace cheaper and less-capable mobile headsets? Google is betting on the latter, and introduced a new Android-based VR platform called Daydream earlier this year. The company has alliances with a series of handset makers, and first Daydream-capable phones are expected to launch later this year.
For Intel, that’s a worrying trend. If handset makers dictate the future of VR, then it may find itself once again shut out of a massive opportunity. By introducing Alloy now, Intel essentially signals hardware makers that it is ready to be a part of the future of virtual reality headsets — even if the first Alloy-based headsets won’t ship any time soon.