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High-end mobile VR is virtually here

Mike Elgan | June 21, 2016
A new category of virtual reality is emerging -- somewhere between tethered consoles and smartphone add-ons

Various products and features are starting to emerge to deal with this problem. A company called Nyko showed at E3 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, say, in your living room. Two wristbands -- one for each wrist -- vibrate when you get too close to the edge. 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, which uses your smartphone as the computer, screen and sound system for VR, solves 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 with a screen at least 4.7 inches in size 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 high end of the market is too high to abandon tethers. The low end of the market is 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) 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 at E3 a VR backpack. 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 a battery.

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 eight and 10 pounds.


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