Arts & Design

VR untethered and ready to tackle anything

Go behind the scenes with the designers of HP's VR Backpack.

By Garage Staff — December 1, 2017

HP's VR Backpack is fun and functional.

Courtesy of HP

HP's VR Backpack is fun and functional.

Like other virtual-reality gamers, HP’s gaming and VR product manager John Ludwig loves the immersive experience of VR — which is why he always hated the annoying cord dangling down his back that connects the VR headset to a computer.

Unlike his fellow gamers, Ludwig could do something about that.

The result? HP’s first-ever VR Backpack — a lightweight yet heavy-duty computer with rear straps that swing onto your shoulders and a cord that skims your collarbone to connect to the VR headset — banishing the fear of tripping over the cord when fighting off robots in Raw Data.

It’s an innovation that promises breakthroughs in areas beyond gaming, with potential applications in health care, media and industry. IDC projects that, driven by both commercial and consumer demand, the global augmented-reality and virtual-reality market will hit $11.4 billion in sales in 2017 — and then soar to nearly $215 billion by 2021.

HP released the gaming version of its VR Backpack in June and the commercial iteration in July to strong coverage.

The backpack’s development is a lesson in how random innovation can be. “Honestly,” says Ludwig, “at the start, I was split on whether it was a terrible idea or a great one. But we wanted to have some fun, and our partners were interested, so we decided to just build it to see.”

For Ludwig, the idea seemed like an entertaining project with low risk — which is what innovation can be: taking a flyer, not knowing whether you’ll have a hit or a miss, but knowing that by trying out ideas, you’re learning.

So when Ludwig’s team started brainstorming about the challenge of a VR backpack more than a year ago, they considered several approaches, including wireless connectivity.  But given the amount of data that needed to move through the air to render the experience, that was a non-starter. Instead, they came up with the backpack idea. Once they had a prototype, they decided to produce around 100 developer kits, put the product out in the world and get feedback. 

“Honestly, at the start, I was split on whether it was a terrible idea or a great one. But we wanted to have some fun, and our partners were interested, so we decided to just build it to see.”

John Ludwig, HP gaming and VR product manager

The team created a website announcing the developer kit, adding a “notify me” button. Within two weeks of announcing the kits, thousands of people from big companies had signed up. Recalls Ludwig: “We kept hearing, ‘We really like that backpack — can we get one?’” That’s when it struck him the team was tapping into something larger.

“Ideas for how this could be used started coming out of the woodwork,” says Ludwig. “Military training, business training and sales, simulations, amusement rides, VR arcades. People loved it. They loved it more than we’d hoped.”

Meanwhile, developer feedback on the prototype started rolling in: the early version was loud, users wanted better performance, the ergonomics needed to be improved. The team took it all in and then plunged into a ground-up redesign.

They started with performance — improving the thermals and plugging in a GeForce GTX 1080 graphics card that’s much faster than other products on the market without adding weight. The work on the thermals also focused on making the device quieter and angling the vents to direct air away from the body to make the unit cooler on the wearer’s back.

Ludwig’s favorite addition, though, is the new desktop dock. Now, the working unit, which weighs less than three pounds, easily detaches from the backpack so you can plug it into a dock and use it for desktop gaming — or everyday computing. “I’m pretty excited,” says Ludwig. “We pushed so hard on the small-form factor because that’s what I’ve always wanted.” 

That quest to marry fun and function exemplifies where the still-developing market for augmented and virtual reality is right now. While a VR computer you carry on your back makes sense some of the time, one that does double duty makes sense all of the time.  

For more about HP's VR Backpack, check out Ludwig's short demo in the video below.