A big part of the Oculus Connect keynote presentation was explaining the standalone category meant to exist between the Samsung Gear VR and Oculus Rift. Last year, Oculus showed off very early versions of a wireless prototype codenamed Santa Cruz. We now know there will be two standalone headsets, one that leans more toward mobile VR quality and one that leans more toward the desktop quality experiences. As cool as the Oculus Go headset looks, the buzz around the conference was clearly on Santa Cruz.

And after a few minutes in the headset, it's clear the buzz is justified. Rather, it will be whenever this headset is available to purchase.

Familiar in all the right places

Oculus staff led me down a hallway with thick black curtains covering several entrances and security guards at the end of the hallway, and explained I would be taken into multiple demo rooms to experience different games. Each room was impeccably well lit, brighter than any other room in the convention center by far.

Here's why that matters so much - Santa Cruz relies on something called "inside-out" tracking aided by four fisheye cameras on the front of the headset. The cameras need to be able to "see" the world around you, as well as the controllers you are holding in your hands. Oculus says Santa Cruz will work in many different lighting environments when it is launched, and that this extreme lighting setup was just to ensure optimal performance for these early prototypes, which makes sense. Either way, it's worth noting for the future.

The first thing you notice about Santa Cruz when it's handed to you is how light the headset is. It doesn't weigh much more than a Google Daydream headset with a phone in it, and the design is almost as soft and flexible. The strap system looks exactly like the Oculus Rift, only without the headphones to drop on your ears. As you go to pull back on the strap to put the headset on, it becomes clear the rear triangle is actually a flexible material instead of a rigid plastic. The same three strap system lets you comfortably put the headset on and fit it to yourself, but that flexible back piece really helps everything feel more comfortable. The way the headset rests on your head feels much better than an Oculus Rift, with everything coming into sharp focus as the headset is adjusted around your eyes.

The next thing you notice is the audio. Like the Oculus Go, these Santa Cruz prototypes have speakers tucked into the strap parts of the headset which offer spatial audio and don't require any adjustment. The people around you can hear what you hear, but only faintly. Meanwhile, for the wearer the sound is just enough to immerse you without completely drowning out the rest of the world. When the person running the demo spoke, it was easy to understand even when in the middle of something in the headset.

About those controllers

As nice as the Oculus Touch controllers are, the design doesn't work well for a tracking system happening above and behind where your arms are typically positioned. The new controller design places the sensor ring up top and closer to your wrists, so the headset can easily "see" the controllers when in use. It's a familiar enough design for those who have used Touch controllers, but improved in ways which reminded me of how occasionally awkward those original controllers can be when trying to grab for them when you've already put the headset on.

These controllers are smaller, less curvy, and feels a little more like the goal is to have a firm grip at all times. There are no Touch-style presence sensors so you can point your finger at someone, but to make up for this you have a multi-stage trackpad with a great feel to it. Your thumb rests naturally on the trackpad, but the button under it sits on a directional rocker. According to Oculus, this gives devs the ability to set up a physical button-press D-Pad under the swipe or steer gestures you'd offer through the trackpad. The shaft of the controller maintains the same trigger and ring-finger buttons from the Touch controller, so grip and fire mechanics will be largely unchanged with this design.

The most important part of this design is making sure the controllers are tracked fully, meaning you never "lose" your hands in VR. Oculus claims the sensor design allows for a huge bubble of tracking space around you so the experience will be just like Touch, but my experience with this prototype yielded different results. On multiple occasions, my hands were lost or not functional when I brought my hands close to my chest. It was almost as though there was a tracking gap under my chin, and for some reason I kept accidentally stumbling upon it in gameplay.

The rest of the time, tracking for these controllers was rock solid. I found myself able to juggle virtual fruit in one demo, and my hands moved in very natural ways throughout the experience. With a little more work, these controllers could easily feel just as capable as Oculus Touch controllers feel now.

The long wait ahead

The saddest part of this Santa Cruz experience is knowing the retail version is very far away. Oculus isn't giving dates or prices or anything like that yet. All we really know is "later this year" developers will be able to request dev kits.

On the other hand, it's clear there's a lot more work for Oculus to do here. There's clearly a desire to push the performance of this headset as close as possible to what we have on the Rift right now, and at this point what Santa Cruz can deliver in something right in between Rift and Gear VR. Oculus says the current Santa Cruz prototypes aren't powerful enough to handle big Rift games like Robo Recall, but also points out the hardware in these headsets isn't 100% finalized.

All I know for sure is the wait for Santa Cruz to become real is going to be a long one.