Stereolabs Mobile VR Positional Tracking
Stereolabs' new ZED camera mounted on a Gear VR headset from Samsung will provide positional tracking on a mobile VR headset for the first time. Stereolabs

Today, if you want to experience virtual reality, you have two options.

The first is mobile VR, which uses a relatively cheap headset paired with your smartphone screen to offer a somewhat immersive experience but without the ability to get up and move around inside the virtual world.

The second is a high-end headset like Facebook’s Oculus Rift or HTC’s Vive. These expensive products do allow you to move around within the virtual world thanks to positional-tracking technology in the headsets that work in conjunction with external sensors mounted on your wall — but your range of movement is limited.

Now a tiny San Francisco-based startup is looking to revolutionize both by offering positional tracking on mobile VR headsets for the first time and without the need for any external sensors — meaning that virtual reality could finally become the truly immersive experience many expect.

Stereolabs, which has just 20 employees, has been working on this technology for the last eight years, and CEO Cecile Schmollgruber says its announcement Tuesday is “very important” for the industry because “until today mobile VR was a seated experience, where you sit, have a headset and look around you, and that’s it. You cannot choose where you want to be in the virtual world.”

Now with the introduction of the second generation of Stereolabs' ZED camera, mobile VR users could be able to experience what has been available only to those buying the high-end headsets from Oculus and HTC to date. “When you plug [the ZED camera] into a headset, you can suddenly get up and move and decide where you want to be in this world and what you want to look at, and you can go closer to objects,” Schmollgruber told International Business Times. “The headset really tracks your position without any external sensor.”

Positional tracking on mobile VR headsets has been seen as one of the holy grails for those involved in developing virtual reality technology. In February, Oculus Chief Technology Officer John Carmack, one of the most respected figures within the games industry, said he was dedicating most of his time to working on solving this problem for the Gear VR.

Stereolab ZED positional tracking camera
The original version of the ZED camera from Stereolabs offered only depth sensing, but the 2016 version offers positional tracking and room scanning. Stereolabs

Oculus partnered with Samsung to produce the Gear VR, the market-leading mobile VR headset that works with a range of Samsung’s premium smartphones. In May the company announced that over 1 million people were using the Gear VR headset the previous month, highlighting the rapid adoption of the new technology.

According to a Forrester report last month, there are about 3.3 million VR headsets in the U.S., but the research firm predicts that number will rise exponentially to 52.3 million by the year 2020. As well as Samsung, Google is making a major play for a slice of the VR space, launching its Daydream virtual reality platform last month at its annual developer conference and baking support for VR directly into the next version of Android.

Schmollgruber said everyone in the industry is trying to refine positional tracking for mobile VR headsets but added that her ZED camera could also give owners of the premium Oculus Rift and HTC Vive headsets more freedom by allowing them to move beyond the limited space their external sensor systems allow.

The developer kit will initially be targeted at app and game developers to help create the type of content this technology will be capable of delivering, but Schmollgruber revealed the company is already in talks with both headset manufacturers and smartphone manufacturers about integrating the company’s technology directly.

When asked about a possible acquisition by one of the other companies seeking to solve this problem, Schmollgruber admitted other companies are interested in Stereolabs, but it has a lot more work it wants to finish, including efforts concerning augmented reality — something the CEO believes will be much more compelling than VR in the long run. “I think [AR] makes more sense for a lot of people,” Schmollgruber said.

Augmented reality is a technology that overlays computer graphics onto the real world, including Microsoft’s HoloLens and Magic Leap’s secretive product, allowing users to interact with those computer-generated images.

While some expect Magic Leap to launch its first product within the next 12 months, Schmollgruber said we are still three or four years away from a consumer product that really works. “There are so many challenges [in AR] that even if [Magic Leap] comes out with something [in the next year] it is still going to be small-scale.”

While the new ZED camera does go a long way to solving the positional-tracking problem for mobile VR headsets, there are still challenges to overcome. One of the biggest is processing all the image data the camera’s two RGB sensors generate. Stereolabs said this currently cannot be done by smartphone processors — despite the huge advances made in this area in recent years — and so developers using the ZED camera will need to hook it up to a PC (limiting the scope of the VR experience) or use a pocketable computer platform like Nvidia Jeston, which the company has been using for some time.

“Integration is something which will arrive, but I don’t know if it will be within the mobile or within the headset,” Schmollgruber said.