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Hands On With the Impressive Oculus ‘Santa Cruz’ Headset

With Oculus VR's upcoming Santa Cruz headset, virtual reality fans have reason to be excited.

I had a chance to demo the prototype device for about 15 minutes at the Oculus Connect developer conference this week, and I found it to be the most impressive VR headset to date.

The Santa Cruz prototype does away with the cords, external sensors, and high-end gaming PC required on the existing Oculus Rift headset. With Santa Cruz, all the necessary components are built into the headset itself, and what a difference a fully wireless VR experience can make.

That sounds great, but how does Santa Cruz work in practice? Quite well. At times, I felt almost removed from the real world.

During a demo of the game Dead and Buried, I scrambled to avoid getting killed by zombies. In another title, Timestalled, I lunged back and forth to fend off a robot attack. The action was nothing new for experienced VR gamers. But with the Santa Cruz prototype, I could play without having to worry about ripping out or tripping over a cord.

As a result, I was free to physically spin my body around, leaping and moving through the space with abandon. In every instance, the Santa Cruz headset tracked my movements fairly accurately as I rotated 360 degrees.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7RlPZ_EGIv4?wmode=transparent&w=740&h=416]

Unfortunately, Oculus didn't allow any pictures during the demo. But the headset and the games I played encouraged me to wander about on my own two feet. And so I did, feeling more immersed in a virtual environment than I have with the company's existing Oculus Rift headset.

The Santa Cruz prototype has certainly come a long way since it was first previewed a year ago. During PCMag's brief demo in 2016, we found it to be promising but clearly a work in progress. Back then, the device included a computer that strapped behind the user's head, a noisy fan, and a battery that dangled from the headband.

The latest version gets rid of that clunkiness and looks and feels like a polished product. The battery and computer are encased inside the headset, which comfortably fit over my head.

Oculus has also redesigned its controllers, which I had no trouble using. During a game called Boundless, I fed and played fetch with a pet creature and kneeled down to pick up cartoon fruit off the ground. The Santa Cruz headset read the controllers without any noticeable hitch.

A demo of the game Boundless, which was used in the Oculus VR

The whole experience was so immersive that when I pulled the headset off, my brain was almost surprised I was back in the real world, and my mind needed a moment to adjust.

For now, Santa Cruz is still a prototype even though it's clearly coming into focus. But I do wonder about the product's battery life and computing power, two factors that might significantly limit how long someone can actually use the headset or what games they can play.

Unfortunately, Oculus isn't revealing anything about the device's technical specs, price, or release date. But the prototype certainly makes me optimistic for VR's future. Developers will begin receiving development kits for the Santa Cruz headset some time next year.

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