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Wearable Tech

Qualcomm wants you to use your real hands to grab virtual things

Qualcomm's Snapdragon 835, likely the chip in the Samsung Galaxy S8, also features in an eye-opening cordless VR headset.

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Do you really want to strap on a backpack, or chain yourself to a beefy computer, to step into a VR world?

You may not need to, if Qualcomm keeps on trucking. The chipmaker's building a cord-free, hand-sensing, eye-tracking headset reference design that could make it way more compelling.

We saw the first step at CES in January, when Qualcomm showed us a tether-free prototype that let my colleague Scott Stein literally dance around a room. And this week, I tried an updated version that doesn't even need a game controller -- you can reach out with your actual hands to grab and throw objects in the virtual world.

I've tried a few early attempts at cord-free headsets, but the hand-tracking in Qualcomm's wearable feels like a step beyond. Unlike the Microsoft HoloLens and Intel Project Alloy, it didn't get confused when I pulled objects back to my ear, entirely out of my field of view. (Though not part of my demo, it might be the first cordless VR headset where you could properly draw and fire a bow and arrow.)

Mind you, it's not the new Snapdragon 835 processor that makes the hand-tracking possible -- it's an embedded Leap Motion depth-sensing module (remember Leap Motion?) with a 170-degree field of view.

That's on top of the twin 1,280x800-resolution monochrome cameras that track your surroundings in real time -- which allowed me to walk around, spin in a circle, and still have the game world face the proper direction without needing to set up a base station in the room.

My demo wasn't perfect, not by a long shot. At one point, I felt like I was sinking into the floor, and the hand-tracking felt sticky: the Leap Motion couldn't always tell when I wanted to let go of an object instead of carrying it with me. Though I had fun creating objects out of thin air and smacking them around, it's still going to take some work before it's ready for prime time.

And the biggest piece of the puzzle -- eye-tracking -- wasn't available for me to try. Theoretically, cameras on the inside of the headset, pointed back at your eyes, can use the headset's processing power to provide extra detailed graphics only where you're looking, instead of wasting it on all the places you're not. It's a technique called foveated rendering, and it could be a big deal if Qualcomm gets it working. (Also see: Fove.)

The Leap Motion sensor module is the lower "jaw" of this headset.

Josh Miller/CNET

Today, mobile VR headsets like Samsung's Gear VR and Google's Daydream are a bit clumsy. You can't walk around a room or even lean your body, because they don't track you that closely. You've gotta carry around a controller, or else tap your temple to select things after pointing at them with your entire head. The graphics are basic, because their mobile processors (even the new Snapdragon 835) have far less performance than the full-size PCs that power tethered headsets.

But with hand-tracking, eye-tracking and room-tracking cameras, those mobile limitations could possibly begin to fade away.

Qualcomm's VR835 reference design should be shipping to hardware developers in the second quarter of the year, and the chipmaker says it expects the tech to appear in real headsets in the second half of 2017.

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