Desperately seeking wireless: VR's aiming to cut the cord

It's coming, but it'll take some patience.

Josh Miller/CNET

A Vive headset was lowered over my face, and a rifle placed in my hands. The cleared-out room space around me was ready for me to take on a few waves of attackers. All around me, I saw enemies coming. I ducked, I aimed, I ran towards a wall and tried to hide. And it was pretty amazing stuff, maybe the best time I had in Las Vegas over a busy CES week.

All because I wasn't tripping over any wires.

Wireless dongles are here (if you're willing to pay)

TPCast's wireless adapter for the Vive (with a version also coming for the Oculus Rift) is very real, and it really works. It's arriving in the second quarter of this year, and it streams audio and video to the PC-connected Vive headset, removing the last tether between my VR gear and the rest of the physical world.

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Going wireless with Vive means no tripping when turning, and it works with no lag.

Photo by Josh Miller/CNET

It's the best example of wireless VR I've ever seen, and it turns the Vive into a true Holodeck experience. But, at $300 for a snap-on thing that sits on your head and also requires a separate battery pack on a tether, it's gear on top of gear. The battery lasts either two or five hours, depending on how big the battery pack you buy.

TPCast's solution is one of several coming this year: another, an Oculus/Vive wireless adapter from KwikVR, is also coming (I didn't get a chance to try KwikVR at CES, though). These gadgets are building onto existing hardware. But, amazingly, it really works well. I didn't feel any lag, and being totally cable-free changed the way VR felt. I was still smothered in a helmet and other gear, but it felt more relaxed, more natural.

All I could keep thinking was, when will this be built into the actual headset? Last year's solution to wireless PC VR was strapping on a backpack PC. This year, it's an expensive wireless dongle. A better answer might not be coming anytime soon. More advanced wireless tech like WiGig, that could handle this level of wireless video and data throughput, isn't here quite yet, and it's unclear what building such powerful wireless into a headset would mean for adding bulk or batteries.

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New cameras, like Google Tango, could make mobile VR more...mobile.

Photo by James Martin/CNET

Mobile wireless: Just add movement

In mobile VR, wireless has already been available: slot your phone in, and you're ready. But mobile VR currently lacks walk-across-the-room positional tracking, or "six degrees of freedom." That means you can't lean forward, or go for a stroll. Instead, with Gear VR or Daydream, you sit and turn your head. But it's coming, thanks to possibilities from Google's depth-sensing Tango cameras combining with Daydream View VR in phones like the Asus Zenfone AR. Qualcomm's vision for mobile VR powered by its new Snapdragon processors allows for walking around too, provided you have a wide-angle lens on your phone.

In Qualcomm's Power Rangers demo, walking around was halfway decent. If a cheap phone VR headset let me walk around like this for a few basic apps, I'd be satisfied in a pinch. It's not great, but it works.

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Putting the whole PC on your head: Intel's Project Alloy

In more advanced PC and console gaming VR, cutting the cord is more complicated, because all the processing's done on a big box somewhere else, not on your face.

So, what about just taking it all and wrapping it around your skull?

Intel has a number of VR and AR initiatives, from creating VR content like immersive 3D video to Project Alloy, a headset that promises to capture real-world data with embedded cameras, then blends that into virtual reality.

Project Alloy isn't like HoloLens. Instead of the HoloLens' see-through visor that projects images so they seem like they're floating in real space, Alloy looks like a regular VR headset, with no see-through element. It's bulky, too. But Alloy is a full Windows PC, built on Intel's Kaby Lake chips. It's compatible with Windows Holographic, Microsoft's cross-platform initiative to support multiple VR, AR and mixed-reality devices in the next Windows 10 update this year. It's a reference design for how mixed (or, per Intel, "merged") reality headsets could be built on Windows hardware.

I played a simple shooter demo during my time at CES in Las Vegas, where I held a small wireless motion remote and aimed at flying drones as I ran around a little base station on some sci-fi planet. Project Alloy could track my walking with its built-in cameras and sensors, offering six degrees of freedom via its cameras along with tilt and gyro sensors.

Alloy could also scan my room with its cameras, theoretically adding my furniture and room dimensions into VR. But it doesn't seem like it'll happen in real-time. The room scan had already happened before my demo started, and I was in a prepared demo room with a table and sofas that were set by Intel. Even then, the objects showed up as rough polygon blobs, not realistic things. I wasn't convinced it would really merge reality and VR in ways that could happen in real time dynamically. And as a wireless demo, Project Alloy didn't seem like it was delivering VR at anywhere near the smooth graphics of what's already available on Vive or Oculus Rift. That's not a surprise, considering Alloy has nowhere near the graphics power of a VR-ready desktop PC.

But it did give me a new appreciation for what HoloLens already does. Microsoft's wireless stand-alone mixed-reality headset has been in developer's hands for months, and it does a pretty good job overlaying graphics and games into the real world -- and tracking motion in any space.

You probably won't be tetherless yet

VR is on its way to wireless this year in some exploratory ways, but I don't see any evidence that it'll be really ready in great products for a while. But, clearly, lots of companies are trying to get there from a lot of different directions at once.

There are plenty of indications that will change, and TPCast's adapter could be a magic solution for a lot of people. But you'll need expensive dongles, patience, or be ready to experiment with funky new phones or hardware. Polished wireless VR might be a 2018 thing. But it's going to happen, and it'll be great when it gets here.