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An iPhone-Powered VR Headset Promises Positional Tracking Without a Tether

The Bridge headset allows users to switch between virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality as they please.

The widely beloved iPhone has so far missed the main currents of smartphone-based virtual reality, thus playing second fiddle to the likes of Samsung's Gear VR headset or Google's Daydream. But with the newly released iPhone-only Bridge headset from Occipital, it's now the focal device in one of those most promising headsets we've seen to date.

The overall concept is familiar enough: You take an iPhone 6, 6s, or 7 and slip it into a slot on the front of the headset and then strap the device on your head. (Sorry, the "Plus" size versions of these aren't compatible.) But it's Occipital's Structure Sensor that makes the Bridge unique.

Image: Occipital

With multiple sensors and a lens that extends the iPhone's camera view to 120 degrees, it maps out physical objects in front of the viewer in great detail. The resulting positional tracking then allows viewers to enjoy a form of mixed reality that recreates real-world surroundings as a projection and lets users interact with virtual objects within it. It's thus a little like the HTC Vive and Microsoft's HoloLens wrapped up in one neat package. It's not a perfect realization of that combo yet—it's bulky, for one, and it can only project images from the iPhone at a resolution of 640x480 for each eye—but it's close enough to warrant some attention.

The battery-powered Bridge can act as a traditional virtual reality device, and its positional tracking lets users walk around in virtual environments without worrying about tripping over wires. Yet its greatest potential lies in mixed reality.

To show off that potential, each unit comes with a app featuring built-in virtual robot called Bridget that plays fetch with you among the tables and chairs of your living room or office. Alternatively, Bridget can open portals that let you look into a bookstore or spacecraft from said living room. Of course, Occipital wants to see more creative uses of what it calls the Bridge Engine from third-party developers, and thus it has packed each dev kit with a Unity plugin that will help developers incorporate Bridge's positional tracking technology into new or existing apps. Occipital CEO Jeff Powers envisions many uses for it.

Image: Occipital

"Mixed reality allows us to use familiar spaces around us in new ways," Powers told me in a email conversation recently. "Education developers could make [a mixed reality] app where the first five US presidents occupy chairs in your living room. This could make learning history a lot more personal and fun. Another idea would be to create a kind of Rube Goldberg app that takes place in your home, where you could use objects around you (virtually) to have fun and learn about physics and machinery at the same time."

He also imagines it being used in much the same way Microsoft envisions the HoloLens being used on the International Space Station, as he suggests "instructions on how to operate a piece of equipment could automatically appear when you gaze at it." Power further believes Bridge's use of a camera over see-through glass presents significant advantages over Microsoft's device.

Image: Occipital

"We can completely change the world around you, rather than only additively blend information on top of it," he said. "In other words, we can subtract as well as add, meaning you could make a wall completely disappear, or let the user walk through a portal into a pure VR environment. Thanks to using an iPhone, Bridge is also a lot less expensive, and is a good way for developers to get their hands dirty in this area with less of an up-front investment."

"Less expensive" in this case is $499 for the new Explorer Edition, which comes with the headset, a Bluetooth controller, the Bridget app, and some promotional exclusives. In March, though, Occipital will release a $399 "Standard" version. Naturally Powers wouldn't say if they were already working on a lighter version, but he said Occipital is "very interested to partner with others in the industry to power their [virtual reality and mixed reality] devices" and that the company is currently developing a smaller 3D sensor it calls the Structure Core, which "was made specifically for this kind of product."

And that, he said, could mean great things for the future.

"In the next few years, using a phone for virtual reality and mixed reality will probably the best way to reach a large audience, in part thanks to things like Cardboard and Gear VR," he said. "Longer term, as headsets get lighter and cheaper, and acceptance of this technology rises, I think we'll see standalone headsets (which communicate with our phones similar to how smart watches do) sitting around our homes and offices."