Here's what it's like inside a VR Power Ranger Zord

At CES 2017, Qualcomm's vision of a wireless mobile VR headset takes advantage of advanced processing...and Bryan Cranston.

I felt like a dancer in the dark of a Las Vegas patio lounge, ducking, swooping, leaning and spinning.

But I was actually trying to get a closer look at the Red Ranger.

I was testing the full-motion tracking capabilities of Qualcomm's mobile VR headset during a demo at CES 2017. Qualcomm's newest Snapdragon 835 processor is designed for headsets like VR and smart glasses, and a reference prototype was available, which CNET editor Roger Cheng and I tested.

It was designed to look like a Power Rangers mask, of course.


Note the Power Rangers theme (and the wide-angle lens).

Scott Stein/CNET

A partnership with Lionsgate resulted in a VR demo tied to the upcoming Power Rangers movie, which I got to try on the new hardware. I got to see the face of Bryan Cranston in his debut as Zordon, the Rangers' mentor. He's glowing and blue.

The demo was an excuse to get a glimpse into Qualcomm's vision of the future of virtual reality. The company, best known for making chips for phones, doesn't sell products directly to consumers. But it makes concept devices like this VR headset that other companies can take and use as a basis for their products.

The company already had a concept VR headset that let you move around -- without the wires that tether the similar HTC Vive ($496 at Amazon) VR system. Thanks to the new chip, the experience was even slicker.

I don't really care about Power Rangers, but I am fascinated by where Qualcomm plans to go with mobile VR. The version I wore is built off a phone, and doesn't need fancy depth-sensing cameras like Google Tango or satellite sensors like the Vive to track your position and movement. All it uses is a wide-angle camera.


Roger looks impressed.

Scott Stein/CNET

And it worked, even in the dim light of the Power Rangers-themed press cocktail party at the Mirage. I moved around in a cave and peered at Cranston's glowing avatar-face as Power Ranger suits rose up all around me. The graphics looked good. Not Oculus Rift ($270 at Amazon) good, but maybe a bit better than what I'm used to on headsets like Gear VR and Google Daydream. Crisper.

The movement wasn't perfect -- I seemed to glide in fits and starts -- but ducking down to look at the ground, or leaning forward, worked particularly well.

Roger and I danced around in our demos, sometimes touching each other by accident. Qualcomm didn't demonstrate any way for the headsets to recognize each other in VR, something other VR and mixed-reality headsets like Intel's Project Alloy are promising. The headset also didn't recognize the real world around me, which meant I had to make sure I wasn't tripping over my overstuffed CES backpack. Roger had to continuously lift his headset to make sure he wouldn't run into a table.

It wasn't all Power Rangers. Qualcomm offered an underwater experience complete with a cartoon octopus. Roger tried this demo in September, but said the graphics and textures were vastly improved from before. The coral reefs looked nice and bright, and a cartoon octopus was able to put its tentacles under my nose when I got close.

Qualcomm's VR platform runs on Android, but it's not compatible with Google's Daydream View. And that could be the problem. How many VR platforms can one phone owner be expected to have the patience to run?

Still, the Snapdragon 835 chip looks like a decent performer. And the camera-based position tracking, which uses the phone's gyros and tilt sensors to map movement, did a fine enough job.

Qualcomm said a phone that used this tech would need a wide-angle lens to work for better tracking accuracy. Qualcomm also hinted that this was just the beginning of its VR ambitions, and more than a new platform, consider this prototype proof that the Snapdragon 835 is meant to handle mobile VR (and AR) better. Which is good news.

I can't wait.