Intel is Working With HTC to Make the Vive VR Headset Wireless

A prototype WiGig add-on module makes the Vive wireless without sacrificing performance.

Running virtual reality requires transferring a huge amount of data from a PC to a headset at breakneck speeds. Whole 360-degree worlds — and all the action within them — need to be put in front of your eyes almost immediately, or even the most steely stomached among us are going to feel a little queasy. So, the idea that full home VR headsets like the HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift can work wirelessly should be just a pipe dream for now, right?

As it turns out, it’s possible right now. At E3 2017, Intel is demonstrating a little add-on they’re developing alongside the HTC Vive team. I got to try it out on the show floor today, and believe it or not, it’s here — the module is in a very rough prototype form, but it delivers on the promise of steady VR performance with no cables tying you down.

It’s a huge move forward for VR enthusiasts. The danger of running into the wall of a VR room is bad enough — the cables tethering players to their PCs are way too easy to trip over. And, danger aside, they do put a damper on the experience — it’s not possible to turn all the way around in a circle without getting twisted in cables, limiting a lot of VR games to straight-ahead action.

How has Intel done it? They’re using high-speed connectivity technology called WiGig. WiGig is actually an evolved form of Wi-Fi — also known as 802.11ad, it trades off range for speed, using an extremely fast 60 GHz frequency to achieve transfer speeds of between 4 and 5 Gbps. Despite using such a high frequency, the range is more than good enough for VR — at their demo area today, I was told that the module will work for VR rooms as large as 20′ x 20′. Response time is also adequate, holding steady around 1 to 2 ms. I got a few minutes with Space Pirate Trainer, a game where you shoot down space drones (and get shot a lot if you don’t move) using a Vive headset and Intel’s wireless module. Sure enough, the performance was as smooth as it would have been if I were using a wired headset.

There are some hurdles to hop over before we can actually buy one of these modules. For starters, both companies want to shrink the module down to something that won’t weigh as heavily on players’ heads. But, they’ll also need to figure out how to squeeze a good amount of battery life out of the module. Eventually, both companies would like to see the technology embedded in future VR headsets, but they’re starting with the add-on idea for now.

The biggest hurdle might be that WiGig hasn’t seen a whole lot of adoption in PCs yet. There are WiGig modules that DIYers can install in their tower PCs, but it’s a problem for anyone who doesn’t dabble in DIY and are either buying premade or getting one of the many VR-ready laptops we’ve seen announced this year. Then again, by the time this module is ready (neither Intel nor HTC is anywhere near willing to predict a release date), that might not be the case. Still, it’s something to keep in mind if you’re shopping for a VR-ready desktop PC or laptop this year.

Check out more of our E3 2017 coverage right here!