Do we Really Need a Laptop Backpack for VR?

When we first tried virtual reality using a laptop backpack (at the Real Virtuality experience at the Sundance Film Festival), we were deeply impressed. It offered freedom of movement – essential for multiplayer VR – and we no longer tripped over the cord. Tripping over cables breaks the deep suspension of disbelief in VR. It’s a stark reminder that you are not clinging to the side of a mountain, but standing in a room – most likely, with a bunch of people watching you.

A laptop backpack for VR

VR Backpack

So we were intrigued to see the recent laptop backpack from the Taiwanese laptop maker, MSI. It is not an ideal solution but it is definitely better than other attempts to strap a computer to your body. Being generous, we could say it looks like a very stylish version of a Ghostbusters Proton Pack. Add some Ecto Goggles and you’re ready for anything the spirit world can throw at you.

The MSI laptop backpack has decent specs, summed up in Techcrunch:

MSI rates the backpack’s two on-board batteries at 1.5 hours of gameplay, which is infinitely extendable by way of hot swapping technology (with a series of lights that indicated it’s time to switch out). The VR One features a GeForce GTX 1 graphics card, an HDMI port, Mini DisplayPort, Thunderbolt3, nine heat pipes and a slew of vents, because a gaming PC attached to the human body is a recipe for overheating.

Yes, you read that correctly – nine heat pipes. MSI is trying hard to make sure your body is not the heatsink for the tech on your backside. Gamers will love being able to hot swap the batteries though you may wonder about the contortionist type moves it will require. However, it is a mere 3.5 pounds, significantly less than similar models offered by HP and others.

But do we really want this?

When you think about it, a laptop backpack for VR is just an interim solution. It is a way of getting our immersive experiences to our high-end VR headsets. Realistically, there are only two other options – storing content in the headset or using wireless. And Mobile VR with its reliance on the Smartphone already claims those approaches. But despite the advances in mobile virtual reality, pixels and head-tracking issues often get in the way. The Real Virtuality installation at Sundance was amazing – precisely because you were wearing the computer that generated the experience.

Laptop backpacks are not a great solution for retail (“Here, strap this on first”) and of limited value in entertainment when you can get a larger audience using swivel chairs and Samsung Gear VR’s. Outside of hardcore gamers and fully immersive public experiences like The Void, it may not find much of a market.

Once you get the laptop down to the size of a terabyte drive and hook it on your belt, it is no longer an obstacle. And if Google can deliver on the promise of Daydream (and perhaps Tango), we will use mobile VR and never look back. 

Every time I see a laptop backpack for VR I cannot help but think of the first cell phone in 1973. Give it a few years and it will be relegated to a shelf alongside the DynaTAC and all the other bulky tech that has passed through our lives.

It’s a good solution if you need it, just don’t plan on using it all that long.

First Cell Phone in 1973
Motorola Vice President John F. Mitchell shows off the DynaTAC portable radio telephone in New York City in 1973