Oculus Project Santa Cruz VR Prototype Hands-on Impressions: A Technological Marvel

The team at Oculus has something special on their hands with the latest VR HMD prototype, Project Santa Cruz.


Oculus announced the latest iteration of their untethered Santa Cruz VR HMD prototype during the Oculus Connect 4 Keynote. The company also introduced brand new Santa Cruz controllers at the event. I was unable to try out last year’s version, but yesterday I experienced the most freeing VR demo of my life. Santa Cruz is setting the goalposts for a truly immersive VR experience.


The demonstration featured two software experiences. The first was Boundless, a demo where players can interact with an adorable pet that looked like a dinosaur crossed with a puppy. This demo was really designed to show off the Santa Cruz VR HMD’s freedom of motion. With the lack of a cable tethering you to a PC, you are able to walk around a large area unimpeded and immersed. The demo was fairly simple. You could grab fruit off of a nearby tree and feed it to your pet and eventually you could play fetch with the good boy.

Hand presence was definitely a focus of the Boundless demo, and I probably spent too much time petting my new VR buddy and throwing the stick. He was just such a good boy, Brent. Eventually a hand appeared in one corner of the area I was hanging around in and once I placed my hand in there, the demo was completed. My main takeaway from the Boundless demo was that it was very fun to move around in VR without having to worry about tripping over a cable. That simple and key difference takes the feelings of immersion and presence to a whole new level.


I was ushered into another demo station adjacent to the room I first experienced Santa Cruz in for another software demonstration. The experience was called Timestall and it involved you defending your cryogenically frozen buddy from a horde of robots. The demo places you on a platform in what appears to be a massive spaceship. You are given a moment to get acquainted with the surroundings, but you and your frozen pal are suddenly attacked. Time freezes. You now have a short amount of time to alter the direction of various projectiles, enemies and debris that are hurtling towards your friend and his life support machine. You can throw the enemy robot in the way of bullets and redirect debris to avoid your friend’s cryogenic chamber. During my first attempt, I didn’t realize that there was a life support machine, and I failed to save my buddy. On my second try, I did it for Shacknews and made those alien robots pay for shooting up my friend.

Besides hand presence being the focus of this demo it was interesting to be able to walk around the platform freely. It was amusing to even walk on the absence of the platform, which was probably not an intentional bug. The other thing that really stuck out for me about this demo was the amazing sound. It definitely enhanced my feeling of presence while allowing me to communicate with my Oculus representative, because I had no headphones on. That’s right. The audio is generated from the Santa Cruz VR HMD itself. This was one of those OMG moments, and just one of the many marvelous hardware advancements that this breakthrough HMD demonstrates. 

Santa Cruz VR HMD Prototype Hardware and Controllers

As I took off the HMD after the Boundless demo, I was blown away by one amazing design detail. There was nothing but a head strap on the back of the unit. 

They have somehow fit all of the technology required to power a high fidelity VR experience in the front part of the headset while maintaining superb counterbalancing. I asked Oculus representatives about what is powering the HMD, but clearly it is too early for them to comment. Whatever is under the hood fits in the front part of the headset, and it provides an experience that is materially better than Samsung’s Gear VR or lesser-known Pico Neo VR. 

Oculus’ Project Santa Cruz VR HMD Prototype is definitely not ready for primetime. The controllers are brand new with a rethought industrial design, but the most important thing for me is tracking. The HMD features four wide angle camera sensors that definitely have a solid field of view, but I did experience loss of tracking during the Boundless demo. It is impossible for inside-out tracking to have perfect controller tracking because of occlusion, and it was my duty to test it out.

I think Oculus has done a better job than many other manufacturers with solving this problem by having the controller stop moving when it is out of your line of sight and then popping back into place almost imperceptibly. It was when I put the controllers behind my back that I noticed the loss of tracking, and it will be on software developers to make games differently for this device than they would a Vive or Rift. The controllers themselves felt great in my hands, although neither demo featured the touchpads that have replaced Oculus Touch’s analog joysticks. It shouldn't be too hard for developers to update apps to work for these controllers whenever this bundle ships and I did confirm that virtual buttons can be mapped to the touchpad.

Oculus' Project Santa Cruz VR HMD is the largest step forward in virtual reality that I have witnessed since the introduction of Valve’s Lighthouse tracking system and Oculus’ Crescent Bay Prototype. It is more apparent than ever that we are still very much so in the early days of VR development, but Santa Cruz has made me more excited than ever for the future of virtual reality.


Asif Khan is the CEO, EIC, and majority shareholder of Shacknews. He began his career in video game journalism as a freelancer in 2001 for Tendobox.com. Asif is a CPA and was formerly an investment adviser representative. After much success in his own personal investments, he retired from his day job in financial services and is currently focused on new private investments. His favorite PC game of all time is Duke Nukem 3D, and he is an unapologetic fan of most things Nintendo. Asif first frequented the Shack when it was sCary's Shugashack to find all things Quake. When he is not immersed in investments or gaming he is a purveyor of fine electronic music. Asif also has an irrational love of Cleveland sports.

From The Chatty
    • reply
      October 12, 2017 2:28 PM

      On my second try, I did it for Shacknews and made those alien robots pay for shooting up my friend.

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        October 12, 2017 2:29 PM

        Shit, hit reply to fast. Duke would be proud.

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        October 12, 2017 2:39 PM

        wait, you’re here?!

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          October 12, 2017 2:40 PM

          I meant to quote that from the article but my dumb brain hit post instead of format

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      October 12, 2017 2:46 PM

      Awesome! I take it you were at Connect this year. So it is your understanding that this was completely untethered and there wasn't a PC rendering the scene wirelessly?

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      October 12, 2017 2:46 PM

      Briefcase duder, you done it for Shacknews!

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      October 12, 2017 8:35 PM

      It is indeed mind blowing. They have to remind you that you have total freedom. Optics are awesome, insanely big sharpness sweet spot. Higher res. Controller tracking is great. It’s the future.

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        October 12, 2017 10:32 PM

        Oh, I got a custom version of Dead & Buried and it was pretty cool. There were items scattered in the play area like a shotgun in one corner, dynamite sticks in another, a detonator and a shield. They really made you dash from a corner to the other while defending yourself from zombies and snipers in different waves. In the first three you were in God mode and couldn’t die.

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      October 12, 2017 10:51 PM

      Man I really want to try this...

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      October 12, 2017 11:11 PM

      I'm a lot less excited about untethered VR than I am about higher resolution and higher quality displays. Bummer they're not saying anything about that.

      Did these still have the screen door effect that the current HMDs have?

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        October 12, 2017 11:29 PM

        Oculus is researching display improvements but I imagine you'll see the big leap there when they go to multifocal displays, and probably only minor variation until then.

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        October 13, 2017 4:30 PM

        Santa Cruz has higher res and better optics than the Rift

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      October 19, 2017 2:35 AM

      Thanks for doing it for us M->B!

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