HP’s recently launched Omen gaming line will soon include a high-end PC that’s also a backpack, designed for walking around in virtual reality. Because we live in a strange world, this is becoming far less unusual than it sounds.
The unnamed backpack PC (technically part of a premium “Omen X” line) is apparently a work in progress, with HP set to start testing some demo units in about a month. The specs are vaguely similar to other VR-ready desktop PCs: it’s got a new Intel Core i5 or i7 processor, up to 32GB of memory, and a graphics card that’s still unknown. But the whole thing is crammed into the equivalent of a slender day pack that HP promises weighs under 10 pounds — the weight of a hefty VR-ready gaming laptop like Acer’s Predator 17X. A pair of fans will dispel heat, and the waist belt incorporates two batteries that power the CPU and graphics card separately.
Ideally, this means that owners of an HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, or similar VR headset can plug it into this machine, put it on, and walk around without worrying about being tethered to a desktop computer or tripping over a cable. You’ll theoretically get something more ergonomic, and less prone to overheating, than tossing a laptop in a normal backpack. And over the course of some focus testing, HP has added a lot of little details that do seem potentially useful. While the batteries only last about an hour, you can swap them out for new ones, while a smaller third battery stops the PC from shutting down during the change. There’s also a wireless display, mouse, and keyboard as part of the package, so you can still use its ordinary computing functions without taking it off. (To be clear, that doesn’t mean you’ll be doing office work like this, but VR headsets require a lot of troubleshooting outside VR.) HP is planning to iterate on the design as more people try it, so new features could be coming before its unknown launch date.
HP is following at least two other companies here: MSI, which announced a backpack PC yesterday, and Zotac, which added a backpack to one of its Zbox miniature computers. Despite that, you probably won’t be seeing a lot of these any time soon. For one thing, they’re a niche of a niche of a niche — a very specific kind of machine for powering tethered headsets, which make up a small portion of total VR headsets, which make up a tiny sliver of our electronic landscape.
It only lasts an hour, but you can swap batteries without shutting it down
For another, none of these companies have said how much they’ll cost. HP says it wants this backpack to be accessible, but it will almost certainly be more expensive than your average VR-ready desktop, which already runs around $1,000. Given how much hardware needs to be shrunk and rearranged, it may be more like a VR-ready laptop, which can cost two or three times as much. And it doesn’t actually let you travel farther than a tethered system, since it’s limited by the headset’s tracking capabilities. It’s just (theoretically) better-feeling and more convenient.
It doesn’t help that when you pair these things with a headset, you’re getting very close to becoming one of the gargoyles from Snow Crash. Or that like almost every single other piece of gaming hardware, this adorable little backpack is hellbent on intimidating you into submission with faux kevlar and crimson threat patterning. Seriously, let’s see some Pikachus and ponies — or at least something besides red and black — on that thing.
As with gaming laptops, the best use cases for the backpack actually don’t lie in people’s living rooms. They’re in commercial facilities with huge tracking systems, whether that’s a theme park like The Void or a research institute like USC. Eventually, if things go right, it’ll trickle down to the rest of us — and we’ll have had some time to get used to this very literal sort of wearable computing.