Virtual reality is a big deal, but delving into the virtual world typically requires a tethered-to-PC solution. That's where Intel Project Alloy does things differently: this all-in-one VR headset is designed without wires, with all its computational power and batteries tucked away inside. Is it set to be the ultimate VR headset?
Intel Project Alloy: No tether required
The premier VR headsets available today, such as Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, require a hardwire tether to associated PC, which can get in the way of the experience. Project Alloy has no wires to tether to any external sources (unless you want a video out to a separate screen), instead putting the computational power and batteries inside the device. That makes it more like the Samsung Gear VR, but with greater computational power potential.
However, there are questions over this kind of design as it will surely be heavier than the competition, bringing its comfort into question. And what of heat dissipation? We'll have to wait and see if Intel has cleverly designed the headset to avoid these issues, as graphics cards and high-end CPUs require some kind of cooling.
Intel Project Alloy: Multi-room tracking
The main point of difference that Project Alloy offers compared to its competition is the integration of Intel RealSense cameras. This means the headset doesn't require any additional sensors placed around the room to detect its surroundings, unlike HTC Vive's arrangement of dedicated sensors.
This means Project Alloy offers what Intel CEO, Brian Krzanich, describes as "multi-room tracking", i.e. the ability to use it throughout any given space, not just a dedicated pre-scanned area.
The RealSense cameras can not only detect surrounding objects' distance from the headset, they can also bring digital visualisations of them into the virtual space. So if you're about to walk into your kitchen table, it'll pop-up into your field of view.
However, RealSense's depth perception isn't foolproof just yet and the way these objects appear in view look like rough Photoshop cutouts rather than smoothly integrated virtual elements.
Intel Project Alloy: No physical controllers required
The ability for RealSense to visualise surrounding objects and bring them into Project Alloy's virtual environment does bring another interesting prospect, though: you can use your hands as controllers, with each digit tracked and able to move through six degrees of mobility. Your actual hands can appear, digitally rendered, in the virtual world for reference.
So there's no more clicking a controller button to, say, hold onto an object in virtual space - simply clasp your actual hand to hold onto virtual objects. Clever stuff - but it needs some tweaks, as the slightly fussy demonstration on stage at the 2016 Intel Developer Conference (IDF) made apparent when a push switch needed to be fisted into motion rather than accurately handled.
Intel Project Alloy: What is 'Merged Reality'?
That real objects can be digitally rendered into the virtual world in real-time does bring another interesting ability to Project Alloy: merged reality, or mixed reality.
Pick up a physical object and, if it's close enough to the headset's RealSense cameras, it will also be digitally rendered into the virtual world. Almost like a reverse-engineered augmented reality, if you will.
As this process is refined it could mean more intricate input, with real-world objects directly correlating to the virtual world. Grab a paintbrush and make a detailed painting, say. For the sake of the demo at IDF, Intel used a one dollar bill, its corner used to lathe a virtual cylinder of gold into a new virtual object. Obscure demo, we know, but there's wider scope for, say, puzzle games that require specific crafting in order to progress.
Intel Project Alloy: When will it be available and how much will it cost?
Project Alloy will be available to Intel partners from the second half of 2017. That likely means we won't see a real-world consumer product until 2018 or even later.
Price is off the cards at this stage in time. It will be largely dependent on the compute power integrated in the product, we suspect. Whether it's a one-size-fits-all specification is not yet known.