Technology advances at an incredible pace these days. Less than a year ago, the world was anxiously awaiting notice of the launch dates for the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive consumer VR systems. Now, less than eight months after the magical technology of virtual reality was bestowed upon the world, it appears that cutting the cord is the next frontier.
The Rift and Vive offer incredible experiences, but there’s no denying that both would be much improved without the cables that leave you tethered to your computer. However, wireless VR wasn’t a feasible option when the Rift and Vive were in development. The bandwidth demands of high-quality, position-tracked VR exceed the limitations of traditional wireless and Bluetooth, so the idea of Wireless HMDs was shelved in order to avoid delaying the release of consumer VR hardware.
Fortunately, thanks to the hard work of multiple companies, and some of the gifted minds at MIT, wireless VR is coming along faster than many expected. In September, we reported that a company called Quark VR is working closely with Valve to build a wireless system for the Vive, and on November 11, HTC China opened pre-orders for a limited run of wireless upgrade kits of the Vive from a company called TPCAST. Intel also recently demonstrated an experimental wireless VR headset system. And now, researchers at the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT (CSAIL) are also working on a solution for wireless data transmission suitable for virtual reality systems.
“It’s very exciting to get a step closer to being able to deliver a high-resolution, wireless-VR experience,” said MIT professor Dina Katabi, whose research group has developed the technology. “The ability to use a cordless headset really deepens the immersive experience of virtual reality and opens up a range of other applications.”
The team at MIT believes that “millimeter waves” (mmWaves) are the solution for replacing the HDMI cable with a wireless signal. MmWaves are signals that operate in the 24GHz and higher range. These high-frequency radio signals can transmit “billions of bits per second,” which make them suitable for high-bandwidth tasks such as transmitting low-latency stereoscopic video signals.
MIT's solution isn’t as simple as plugging a transmitter into the computer and a strapping a receiver onto the headset, though. MmWaves antennas are directional, and the beams that they cast are narrow, so they aren’t well suited for room-scale VR. However, the team at MIT is developing a system called MoVR that can follow the receiver’s movement automatically, which enables wireless room-scale VR tracking.
MoVR doesn’t receive or transmit the VR data; it simply reflects the signal from the transmitter towards the receiver. The MoVR system calculates the angle of reflection at startup and calibrates itself to reflect the signal where it needs to be. The researchers said that calibration is the most time-consuming part of the process. Once it has the angle calibrated, the MoVR system uses the position data from the VR HMD via Bluetooth to determine the best angle at any given moment.
Data transmission via mmWave is fast. MIT said its system could transmit the VR signal in under 10ms, and reflecting the wireless signal has no effect on the data rate.
Unlike the Quark VR and TPCAST wireless systems, MIT's MoVR wireless system is just experimental. The researchers didn’t indicate specific plans to introduce the technology as a consumer product. For now, MIT is focusing on refining the technology. Future goals include shrinking the hardware to “be as small as a smartphone” and creating the ability to have more than one wireless headset in the same space.
This may be the year of VR, but 2017 is shaping up to be the year of wireless VR.