Computers come in all shapes and sizes, from hulking neon-lit desktops to lightweight Ultrabooks, dongle-sized Compute Sticks to NUC mini PCs.
But here’s something different again — a new breed of wearable ‘backpack PC’ that offers a bold new take on the idea of portable computing.
As the name suggests, the VR backpack PC is a fully-fledged VR-ready PC that you wear on your back like a rucksack. It’s designed to solve a particular problem, namely: how can you enjoy a truly unrestricted, room-scale VR experience when your VR goggles are tethered to a desktop PC?
The default solution for the HTC Vive is a five-metre 3-in-1 cable (HDMI 1.4/USB 2.0/audio). But while it’s long enough, it can get in the way as you walk, turn, duck, dodge and perhaps even crawl around a VR play area.
A PC you can wear…
What if you could carry your PC around with you? The MSI VR One, for example, combines an overclocked Intel Core i7 processor and an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1070 graphics card into a futuristic-looking, battery-powered backpack PC.
It’s not the first of its kind. But MSI claims that the VR One is the “the world’s lightest and thinnest backpack PC system.” According to the specs, it weighs a ‘mere’ 3.6 kg and comes with two hot-swappable battery packs that can provide up to 90 minutes of untethered virtual reality experience.
Compare that to the HP OMEN X VR PC Pack (above), another Core i7-equipped machine that weighs 4.5 kg and has batteries that can last up to an hour.
The popularity of room-scale VR
Or there’s the Zotac Mobile VR Backpack, which features a mini PC powered by an Intel Core i5-6400 CPU and an NVIDIA GTX 980. It doesn’t look as polished as the OMEN or the VR One, but its 60,000mAH battery cell is powerful enough for you to enjoy two hours of cable-free VR adventuring while wearing it.
It’s easy to dismiss the VR backpack PC concept as a passing fancy. But the most recent SteamVR usage data from Valve shows that 81.5% of gamers are using a play space that measures 2 x 1.5 metres or larger.
Virtual reality games are also increasingly embracing the idea of room-scale VR. Hover Junkers has you turning and ducking as you fight off post-apocalyptic scavengers in flying barges built from scrap. While Unseen Diplomacy has you crawling through air ducts and jumping over laser beams.
All in one VR headsets?
In the future, perhaps developments in technology will enable computing technology to be incorporated into VR headsets. This is the route that Intel is taking with Project Alloy, the cable-free, ‘merged reality’ system unveiled at IDF 2016.
Until then, the VR backpack PC provides a usable, if somewhat inelegant solution to cutting cables and increasing immersion when we play in virtual worlds.