This coming Wednesday and Thursday, virtual reality (VR) developers and enthusiasts from around the world will once again gather in San Diego, Calif., for Facebook’s Oculus Connect developer conference. One of the big reveals of the conference is expected to be the latest version of Oculus Santa Cruz, a standalone VR headset that Facebook has been teasing since 2016, and that is expected to become available to consumers in the coming months.
Santa Cruz has been billed by the company as a new device category that sits squarely in the middle between existing headsets, offering PC-like immersion without the need for any wires. For for many in the industry, Santa Cruz is a lot more than that: It’s the hope to finally bring immersive VR experiences that were previously only available to a small subset of hardcore enthusiasts to a much wider set of consumers.
Here’s what we know about Santa Cruz thus far:
High-end tracking. This is why everyone is so excited about Santa Cruz. The headset features what’s known in the industry as six degrees of freedom (6DOF) tracking. This essentially means that the headset not only knows where you are looking in a VR experience, but also when you are leaning into it, or taking a step forward.
PC-based VR headsets like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive have been offering this type of functionality for some time, but it has been absent from most mobile-based VR. Samsung’s Gear VR, the Oculus Go or Google’s Daydream View headsets only offer three degrees of freedom, which means that the headset knows where you are looking, but not whether you moving forward or backward.
Headsets like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive have been using external tracking hardware for 6DOF, which has also limited consumer appeal. Not everyone wants to first install and calibrate extra hardware before they can get started with VR. For Santa Cruz, Facebook is instead using what’s known in the industry as “inside-out” tracking: a combination of cameras and other sensors integrated into the headset itself — something that has also been used by Microsoft and its hardware partners for their PC-based mixed reality headsets.
Santa Cruz, as shown at last year’s Oculus Connect conference.
Tracked controllers. Oculus isn’t actually the first major company to sell a standalone VR headset with 6DOF tracking to U.S. consumers. That honor goes to Lenovo, which teamed up with Google for a Daydream-based standalone called the Lenovo Mirage Solo. But while the Mirage does know whether you are leaning into an experience, it doesn’t actually track your controller, which means that users are left with the same kind of pointer-type experience that’s also available on the Oculus Go, Gear VR or Daydream View.
From last year’s Oculus Connect keynote presentation: Santa Cruz will track user’s handheld controllers, making it possible to reach out to virtual objects.
Santa Cruz, on the other hand, will be able to fully track two controllers, which allows developers to add hands to their avatars, and users to actually reach out to virtual objects. Not only does it allow for much more immersive gameplay, it also enables all kinds of other interactions in VR. Tiltbrush for instance — an app that allows users to freely draw 3D objects — simply isn’t possible without controller tracking.
An Android-based operating system. Santa Cruz will run on mobile hardware, likely using a high-end Qualcomm Snapdragon processor. It is confirmed to run a customized version of Android, much like the company’s lower-end Oculus Go headset. This means that it will necessarily less powerful than an Oculus Rift powered by a latest-generation gaming PC.
However, Oculus has invested a lot into optimizing mobile VR video quality to blur those lines. In fact, Oculus representatives told the audience of the Game Developer Conference (GDC) in San Francisco earlier this year that “developing Rift quality content is the goal” for Santa Cruz.
A promotional video for Santa Cruz released a year ago.
A big focus on comfort. When Oculus first unveiled a Santa Cruz prototype at its Oculus Connect developer conference in 2016, it essentially looked like a modified Rift with an extra big bulky chunk of hardware attached to the back of your head. Expect the final version of Santa Cruz to look very different. More recently, Oculus has already shown images that are more reminiscent of the Oculus Go, featuring the same integrated audio technology that takes away the need to add external headphones.
But while the Go has loose elastic band head straps that have to be adjusted with two hands, sources have told Variety that Santa Cruz will use firmer material. These head straps will be attached to the main headset with a kind of hinge that makes it possible to put the headset on with just one hand.
Here’s what we don’t know yet:
How those controllers will look like. Oculus unveiled what looked like a near-final design of the Santa Cruz controllers last year, showing off two handheld controllers with rings for tracking and touch pads for swiping and other controls. However, there has since been talk that the company may replace the touch pads with buttons and a thumb stick, similar the controllers that ship with the Rift. That would make a lot of sense for games, and also make it easier for Rift developers to port their apps to the new headset.
Which titles it will ship with. Given that Santa Cruz is running on Android, the company could easily let publishers bring their Oculus Go apps to the device. This would provide Santa Cruz with over 1,000 launch titles out of the box.
However, all of the messaging we have seen from Oculus thus far has been about differentiating the device from cheaper mobile VR, and likening it to the Rift. With that in mind, it’s entirely possible that Oculus would put a premium on user experience to make sure that new users aren’t underwhelmed by apps not designed for the device. The company could, for instance, bar Android apps that haven’t been updated for 6DOF from the platform.
At the same time, Oculus is likely going to encourage Rift developers to bring their games and experiences to Santa Cruz. The Facebook subsidiary has in the past spent tens of millions of dollars to get launch titles for the Rift, and it is likely going to do the same to make sure that a number of big names are available at launch.
A release date. We don’t actually know yet when Santa Cruz is going to be for sale, or which name it will be sold under. In fact, Oculus hasn’t even confirmed yet that it will introduce the device at this year’s Oculus Connect, but there have been plenty of hints, including sessions meant to help developers with porting their apps to the new platform.
Making the device available to the wider developer community now suggests that it could be available for sale in early 2018. Then again, Oculus hasn’t had the best track record for shipping devices on time. Oculus Go was supposed to go on sale in early 2018, but didn’t actually make it onto shelves until May.
How much it will cost. Oculus hasn’t given us any indication about the price of Santa Cruz yet. The company did learn quite a bit about pricing from the introduction of the Rift and Go headsets. The Rift was originally priced $600, and Oculus was charging an additional $200 for its handheld controllers. That’s a steep price, considering the fact that consumers still needed a high-end gaming PC to run the Rift’s software.
Oculus has since significantly reduced the price of the Rift, and is now selling a bundle of headset and controllers for just $399. The company also priced the Oculus Go a lot more aggressively when it introduced the mobile standalone headset back in May, selling the base model for just $200.
From last year’s Oculus Connect conference: How Facebook has been positioning the headset.
Perhaps it’s worth considering how Oculus has positioned Santa Cruz in the past: As a new device category that sits between cheap mobile headsets and expensive PC-based VR hardware. It’s quite possible that the company will stick with this line of thinking for pricing as well for a “good, better, best” pricing structure. That would make even more sense if Oculus was to introduce a revamped version of the Rift with higher-resolution displays in 2019, which would allow it to perhaps sell the Go for $200, Santa Cruz for around $400 and a high-end Rift for $500 or $600.
Oculus likely won’t announce a price for the Rift until it is ready to sell the hardware to consumers, but we may learn a lot more about the company’s new headset at Oculus Connect Wednesday.