The race is heating up for a wireless virtual reality headset with HTC announcing a $220 add-on to its Vive system that will allow you to unplug from your PC.The Tether-less VR upgrade kit attaches to the existing Vive headset and comprises a wireless transmitter and receiver that sits on top of the head strap and a battery pack that sits at the back of your head.The company has not released any technical specs for the device but it was been built by TPCAST, will reportedly work for 90 minutes and will ship in the first quarter of 2017 in limited numbers.The upgrade is a sign that HTC is worried about two new headsets also expected to come to market next year: Oculus' Santa Cruz and the new Sulon Q.HTC and Oculus currently represent the high-end of the VR market, with a standalone headset, rather than a smartphone held in a pair of goggles. The advantage to this comes in both quality and latency - they are not restricted to the processing power and motion tracking contained in a mobile phone.But, however, both companies launched requiring the headset to be physically connected by a wire to your PC - a situation that lead to immediate and widespread mockery considering this is a product that is supposed to be able to let you physically move around.
The difficulty with creating a wireless headset however comes in the need to share huge amounts of data in real time - the slightest delay in either images or movement tracking can make the experience nauseating for users. It's not clear how HTC has achieved that.As for the Oculus Santa Cruz: it was demoed last month but is currently only a prototype. It has one distinct advantage over the HTC approach in that it allows for inside-out tracking - meaning that the headset itself sensors the room you are in, so you don't have to set up special sensors in the room and calibrate the system before using it. It does appear however that Santa Cruz still relies on connecting wirelessly to an external PC.The other huge advantage of inside-out is that it can offer augmented reality, rather than just virtual reality. In other words, you can be shown the room you are currently standing in on the headset and have virtual reality elements added to it, rather than have a purely computer-created environment.
Both of those headsets may be blown out the water however by the as-yet-unreleased Sulon Q.The company demoed its latest headset last month and told The Register that it intends to launch in early 2017.The Sulon is later to market than HTC and Oculus largely because it has been perfecting the technology that the other two are now desperately working on: a wireless headset.The Sulon Q will have inside-out tracking and come without wires. But it will also have two very distinct advantages.First, it is not relying on an external PC to do the processing and so does not require wireless data flows to function. Instead, Sulon has managed to build an entire Windows 10 PC into the headset.Second, because it does all the processing on board, and because the company has been working solely on a self-contained headset, it has a battery life that Sulon project manager Kibaya Njenga told us was equivalent to a laptop.
He wouldn't go into greater details beyond stating that the more processing the system does, the less time the battery will last, but it's safe to assume that with the Sulon Q, you are looking at several hours before needing to charge - a big improvement on the HTC's 90 minutes.
Another advantage that the Sulon system has over HTC's add-on approach is that it will almost certainly be more comfortable as the headset has been designed as a whole, whereas the HTC wireless pack is an add-on. That add-on will put weight right on the top of your head. We will have to wait and see but we predict that gets pretty uncomfortable after a while.There are trade-offs with the Sulon Q approach. It can't, for example, match the processing power of the Oculus and HTC models so graphics will be a little less rounded with lower resolution.That said, we don't know yet whether the other two companies will need to downgrade their image quality a little in order to make their headsets work with wireless data.The price is also unknown right now, although if you need to buy a new PC or upgrade an old one in order to power the Rift or Vive, it is likely that Sulon's standalone Q will come in cheaper overall, especially when you consider the Vive's new wireless add-in comes with a $220 price tag on top of the Vive's $799.
And then of course there is the ecosystem. Sulon is not providing any information about the user interface that comes with its system, and while it is offering SDKs, it is not going open source. It works on Windows and is making sure that VR content developed using the current leader in VR software, Unity, will work simply and easily with its headset. The Sulon Q will have two USB 3.0 ports and a 2.5mm audio jack - so it is more open than the locked-down and increasingly pricey Oculus Rift.That's all good but HTC and Oculus have been busy building up lots of original content. Even if Sulon comes out with a headset that is 12 months ahead of the other two, if the games and films aren't there, people will hold back from purchasing it.In short, everyone in the VR market knows that they need to get away from a wired headset as soon as possible. The two companies out there right now - HTC and Oculus - are working hard and fast on that but are constrained by the fact that their systems run on a separate computer.Sulon meanwhile is about to launch into the market and has decided to build a standalone device with the PC built into the back of it. It has had to make some trade-offs in order to keep the headset light enough.And of course, there is also the PlayStation VR which is also wired and which only works with Sony Playstations but comes with a name and content that everyone is already familiar with. Sony has no announced plans for a wireless headset however.
None of the systems are perfect and all are relying on continued advances in technology to get to that next level. As to which company gets there first, with the right product, at the right quality and the right price - that is all wildly up in the air right now. It's a big race with potentially huge rewards. And it starts now. The proposition is that the Elite x3 is a phone that doubles as a PC and tablet replacement. Once connected to an external display, keyboard and mouse, either wirelessly or via a dock, this hefty Windows 10 phablet can run full-screen Universal Windows Platform (UWP) apps. So the owner won’t need a PC. It’s quite a promise to live up to.In practice, the pitch is more nuanced. The Elite x3 isn’t for consumers at all, or even for all staff. HP maintains there’s a huge potential saving for some classes of employee – field staff such as mobile workers in logistics and healthcare, for example – from adopting a multimode device, and the x3 is it.To flesh out the proposition, HP offers a compatible desk dock (er, “Desk Dock”), which we’ll discuss here as it comes as part of a bundle, and a shell of a laptop (LapDock), which we won’t because we don’t have it yet. There’s also a welcome range of accessories, including cases, and the Desk Dock package has been designed to handle all kinds of case sizes.
HP also offers a metered RDP service, piped through a new HP app, HP Workplace. This helps plug the gaps – of which there are many – in the app catalogue. As we found when we tested Continuum recently, just because the phone comes with an app doesn’t mean you’ll be able to use it in docked mode, on a full external display. It needs to be a UWP app.A UWP app will be available through the Windows Store, may have restricted access to legacy APIs, and most importantly will adapt to different screen sizes. Although some key Windows Phone apps have been modified to become UWP apps, many have not yet made the conversion, for example, Evernote.There’s no skimping on the hardware, either in terms of specs or quality. Since the intended user is someone who is hitting the outdoors, durability was evidently a key design consideration, and this rock solid unibody design delivers. HP claims the x3 is waterproof to IP67 (enduring 30 minutes in a metre of water), and passed the US Army’s MIL-STD 810G suite of tests for explosions, shock damage and other stress – although we don’t know which ones and how many. (MIL-STD 810G is defined in this pdf – for more on how our own accidental stress tests stressed the x3, read on below.)The phone’s size is defined by an almost-6in display. I found the phone, with its polycarbonate body, eerily reminiscent of the enduring Nokia Lumia 1520. The only distinguishing visual feature is the faux metal grill at the bottom. At no time did this phone demand to be picked up and handled for its design, but that’s not really the point; this is industrial design for an industrial device.
When it comes to what’s inside the Elite x3, specs have been very well chosen: everything that matters in a workhorse is present and correct.
So we find a stonking 4150mAh battery, support for two SIM cards (or one SIM card and a microSD), and flagship horsepower: a Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 and 4GB of RAM. Thermal management is much better with this generation of processors, and the device didn’t warm up. There's no skimping on multimedia either, with very impressive dual front-facing B&O-branded speakers. (Only one is in use when the speakerphone is activated, I noticed.)The AMOLED display officially measures 5.96in diagonally, is a WQHD (1440 x 2560) panel covered in Corning Gorilla Glass 4, giving it 494ppi, and turned out to be bright and clear in daylight, with a brightness of 350 nites. (For the official specs, turn to this pdf.)Our review unit handled two SIM cards, although some SKUs come in single SIM and microSD card. (Windows 10 isn’t the most elegant in handling a dual SIM phone, with separate icons for each phone and SMS app.) No SIM tool is required to open the SIM/SD card tray, although it helps to have fingernails.
Power management varies wildly from Windows 10 release to release, so I had some trepidation here. I need not have worried – the x3 runs for well over a typical day, even with two SIM cards operational, thanks to the 4150 mAh battery.HP claims that 10 minutes of charging in the Desk Dock gets you 16 per cent of battery charge – enough for 90 minutes of browsing or 3.5 hours of talk time. (On the standard wall charger 10 minutes gets you 14 per cent of battery fill, still enough for 72 minutes of browsing).If you prefer, it supports Qi and PMA wireless charging standards without any adapter or sled. Call quality varies, although it could be excellent, and W10M needs more tweaks to attach to networks a little quicker.LTE CAT 6 is supported, as is carrier aggregation. Calls were handled well, but after a drop onto a hard surface both of x3's SIM readers ceased working, so I was unable to give the phone its usual extended workout in a variety of situations to gauge reception and call quality. (A replacement review unit has been promised.)The big addition to Windows mobile is the first appearance of a fingerprint scanner; he x3’s is rear-mounted. Enrolment is quick and easy, and the device also supports the retina-scanning biometrics that were introduced a year ago with Microsoft’s Lumia 950 and 950 XL.