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Intel announces Project Alloy, a standalone ‘merged reality’ VR headset

For the past eight months, discussions of virtual reality in the PC space have boiled down to discussions between HTC’s Vive and the Oculus Rift. While there are other companies jockeying to make a splash in the VR market, these are the only two high-profile launches to land in 2016. Similarly, discussions of AR (augmented reality) ultimately focus on Microsoft’s HoloLens. At IDF, Intel demonstrated its own solution to a mixed reality device — a combination AR/VR headset that’s completely self-contained with its own CPU, battery, and processor, with integrated cameras and a ‘merged’ reality mode.

Merged reality appears to be synonymous with Microsoft’s mixed reality mode and the two companies are collaborating on hardware and software. Microsoft’s Holographic platform will be available for Project Alloy — and, in fact, available on all Windows PCs starting next year. This will give all Windows 10 PCs the opportunity to work in ‘merged reality’ mode, though you’ll still need a separate headset as far as we know (either HoloLens or Project Alloy itself).

“Anyone can take Alloy hardware, combine it with Windows Holographic, and build a world-class VR system,” Intel CEO Brian Krzanich told the crowd at IDF.

The Project Alloy demo began with an Intel rep walking around on stage while viewing a virtual room, according to Engadget. The rep opened a door by reaching his hand out and flicking a switch. The headset “saw” this interaction and reacted accordingly, though it took a few seconds for his hand to be recognized. As the rep walked towards Intel CEO Brian Krzanich, the latter’s face appeared in VR, allowing the rep to see who he was moving towards and avoid a tumble on the stage.

While Project Alloy was demoed on-stage, it’s not clear how well the hardware can deliver in real life. Like the Sulon Q demo that AMD showed earlier this year, Project Alloy claims to pack a great deal of horsepower into a small space — but headsets are extremely sensitive to weight and heat, arguably even more so than tablets or smartphones. Given that Intel recently killed its smartphone and tablet products, it’s not clear if any current generation chip is powerful enough to drive a VR/AR experience from an all-in-one enclosure — or that conventional wireless technology is fast enough to make this desirable in any case. What works on a convention floor demo with bespoke hardware may struggle in the real world.

At the same time, what demos like this illustrate is how Microsoft and Intel both feel VR and AR is essential to future products — even if no one has precisely figured out how to take advantage of their capabilities just yet. Apple, for its part, recently declared AR a “core technology” for the future as well.

One potential point of confusion is that neither HoloLens nor Project Alloy is going to drive high-end gaming VR — there’s just no way to pack a modern GPU capable of pushing 60 to 90 FPS into a form factor that wraps around your head. This won’t matter so long as there’s a clear price gap between consumer-facing hardware like Rift and Vive ($600-$800) and HoloLens ($3,000). If prices start coming down, we could see problems cropping up between customers who buy a device expecting one level of functionality, but end up with something completely different.

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