If you’ve been holding onto your trusty iPhone 6, 6S, or 7 and wondering when a cool VR headset will be available for it, this is your lucky day. The Occipital Bridge headset looks like it’s well worth the wait, as it’s more powerful than any other phone-driven headset on the market.
That’s because it’ll have positional-tracking capabilities other mobile-driven headsets lack. The Bridge comes from the same company that created the Occipital Structure Sensor, an iPad and iPhone add-on that uses infrared to scan objects and gauge distances automatically.
In fact, the Structure Sensor is also the main component of the new Bridge AR/VR headset. It’s built into the front of it, mapping your surroundings and making it possible to do what’s called “inside-out positional tracking.” It can sense and create depth maps of objects as close as a foot and a half and as far as 11 feet away. It won’t drain your battery quickly, because the sensor has its own rechargeable battery that runs three to four hours per charge.
Positional tracking is what makes higher-end hardware such as the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and PlayStation VR such fundamentally different devices compared to phone-based headsets like the Gear VR and Daydream View. With positional tracking, you can roam around inside a virtual world laterally and vertically.
But positional tracking usually requires an external camera or beacons to track your movement. Thanks to its advanced built-in sensors, Bridge does it all in one self-contained package. You just drop in an iPhone, and Occipital’s sensor rig is powerful and accurate enough to create detailed 3D maps of your environment. It’s a big deal.
It’s also a big rig. While most headset makers are concentrating on making headsets softer, lighter, and less intimidating, the Bridge makes you look like a full-on cyborg. You swing out a door on the front of the headset, drop in your phone, close the door, tighten the facemask onto your head with a knob on the back. The headset’s 120-degree wide-angle lens attachment and top-mounted Structure unit take it from there.
Within a minute or so, you can map your virtual surroundings just by looking at them. Occipital has created a canned feature, a little robot pal called Bridget, that you can play fetch with in your mixed-reality surroundings. Part of the Bridget experience is the ability to create “portals,” little tears in the real-virtual continuum that let you poke your head into computer-generated worlds.
As fun and friendly as Bridget is, the platform’s longer-term success will depend on the work of third-party developers. According to Occipital, the system works with existing iOS VR apps and videos, while developers can use a Unity plugin and the existing Bridge Engine SDK to create brand-new experiences.
There are a few notable limitations to the hardware. For one, it only works with the iPhone 6, 6S, and 7—no Plus-sized models are supported at this time. And compared to those higher-priced face-computers, it’s a fairly low-resolution experience. With the Bridge on, you’re seeing a resolution of 640×480 per eye.
But the best part? It’s not very expensive, especially compared to other positional-tracking systems and AR devices such as the Microsoft Hololens. A developer-centric Explorer Edition starts shipping this month for $500, while the consumer-oriented model is due in March for $400.