High-end mobile VR is virtually here

A new category of virtual reality is emerging -- somewhere between tethered consoles and smartphone add-ons

tether virtual reality

Impulse Gear allowed E3 attendees to try Farpoint for PlayStation VR. The game is awesome, but will a company representative go home with you and stand there to make sure you don't get tangled in the cables?

Credit: Mike Elgan

Wheeeee! You're riding a flying unicorn down a magic rainbow while kittens and cupcakes rain from the sky. It's all so real.

Then, suddenly, everything goes black as you unknowingly take one step too many and pull the cable from your virtual reality headset.

Bummer.

There's a virtual elephant in the living room, and here it is: High-quality virtual reality is going to be literally held back by the need to tether to a console.

Last week's Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in Los Angeles offered new ideas (and old) to solve the catastrophic VR tethering problem.

VR is here at last

The world of VR has been teasing fans for decades. In recent years, the busting out of real VR has always been a year or two away, they told us.

Finally, I'm happy to announce that VR is really here this year. In fact, many E3 attendees told me the show represents a turning point for VR -- that this is the event that makes it real at long last (rather than virtually real, I guess).

After years of prototypes, teasers and promises, we're finally getting something solid. The Sony PlayStation VR got a price ($399), a release date (Oct. 13) and a promise of 50 games by the end of the year, just in time for the holidays. Nice!

Deloitte says virtual reality spending will pass $1 billion this year. So VR is also getting real as a business.

By the end of this year, the VR space will be a real market with real content and real products.

Too bad the VR you really want won't arrive this year.

The Goldilocks problem

High-end VR systems, which provide the most believable virtual experiences, all have headsets that are tethered to consoles, which are plugged into wall outlets. The cabling is necessary because the technology needed to provide these amazingly lifelike virtual worlds is still too big to go mobile.

Arcades and special theme parks will use products like the Void Rapture or Starbreeze StarVR, which run on large, powerful computer systems and require serious cables connected to the headsets.

At home, Facebook's Oculus Rift, the HTC Vive and Sony's Playstation VR are going to be awesome. But they will require you to be very careful about how you physically move while you're lost in VR land.

Remaining aware of your actual physical surroundings while using VR is harder than it sounds. The whole point of VR is total mental immersion in a space that isn't really there. People do completely forget about their actual surroundings.

This fact was accidentally demonstrated by all the VR demos at E3. Every attendee trying VR was either strapped into a chair or attended by a company representative, who stood there to make sure there weren't any mishaps.

Various products and features are starting to emerge to deal with this problem. At E3, a company called Nyko demonstrated a $99.99 product called the VR Guardian, which is a wristband alert system for making sure you don't walk into a wall or trip over a coffee table while immersed in VR. Four Bluetooth sensors are placed at the edge of a safe VR space -- in your living room, for example. Two wristbands -- one for each wrist -- vibrate when you get too close to the edge of that safe space. The VR Guardian ships this year.

So high-end VR is spectacular, but it comes with the risks and hassles of physical tethers.

Lower-end VR systems, which use smartphones as their computers, screens and sound systems, solve the tether problem.

The E3 star in this category was the Zeiss VR One Plus, joining a category that includes the Samsung Gear VR (Amazon price - What's this?) and the Google Cardboard platform. Like Cardboard, the Zeiss VR One works with any phone that has a screen of at least 4.7 inches but no more than 5.5 inches and can play Google Cardboard-compatible content.

While smartphone-based VR systems are tetherless, they're also low-quality. None of these systems are acceptable for anyone who wants true believability as well as a high-quality experience in VR.

The VR market has a Goldilocks problem: High-end systems are too high to abandon tethers, and low-end systems are too low to offer a quality experience.

That's why a new class of VR (between the high-quality tethered systems and the low-quality tetherless offerings) is so promising.

The new category of VR might be juuust right!

Behold! High-quality, tetherless VR!

Alienware, a gaming hardware company owned by Dell, demonstrated a VR backpack at E3. The idea is to enable the kind of powerful VR experience you'd get tethered to a big console, but without the tether.

Alienware makes a Windows-based gaming console called the Alienware Alpha R2. The VR backpack is essentially an Alpha R2 and a big battery integrated into a backpack.

A regular console Alpha R2 with a graphics upgrade that enables high-end games will cost upwards of $600, so Alienware's VR backpack could be very expensive.

The Alienware concept joins other backpack VR prototypes previously shown or announced from HP, MSI, Gigabyte and Zotac.

All these concepts involve jamming VR PCs into backpacks with batteries.

Expect real, hands-on demos and additional announcements related to backpack VR systems at CES in January, followed by expensive products next year and affordable products the year after.

Backpack VR isn't perfect. While the backpack idea frees you from the dangers of tethers, it also saddles you with a heavy backpack. Alienware didn't specify the weight of its device, but VR backpacks tend to weigh between 8 and 10 lbs.

Another class of VR hit E3 in the form of a truly mobile VR console.

Immerex showed off its VRG-9020 product, an integrated VR headset and battery-powered console. The console part looks like an old-school CD player from the 1990s. The company promises a VR experience that's better than those offered by smartphone-based systems.

The Immerex VRG-9020 comes with a controller, but smartphones can also be used as controllers.

Interestingly, the headset is designed like a pair glasses: Rather than using a strap to secure the goggles to the user's head, it has arms on the sides of the frame that rest over the user's ears. The goggles are relatively small and light. Immerex says the VRG-9020 will offer a higher-quality VR experience than the smartphone-based systems.

While the Immerex VRG-9020 doesn't look all that promising, the company is devoted to remaining proprietary, making the whole system and all the games itself. The general category of truly mobile VR that's better than smartphone-based VR will probably be a winner over the next few years.

The good news and the bad news

The good news is that after years of waiting, virtual reality is finally real. By the holidays, you'll be able to walk into a store at the mall and buy high-end VR systems and games to play on them. You'll also be able to buy low-end, smartphone-based VR headsets -- and you'll have real choices in that category.

The bad news is that the VR experience you really want, which is high quality but mobile, is still a year or two away at the earliest.

At least we'll have our PlayStation VR consoles to literally fall back on.

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