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Insight

Keeping up with new technology

It’s What’s On the Inside-Out That Counts

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Remember when the VCR remote had a wire? Or your mobile phone had a bag? And the GPS unit plugged into your car and stuck to the windshield?

Technology is moving wicked fast. And Virtual Reality is accelerating even faster. 

This post is about VR losing its wired remote, its leather tote bag, and the suction cup. It’s about how your brand can accomplish powerful new breakthroughs with this exciting technology with fewer restrictions and a lower investment. It’s about the future arriving now. 

One of those key developments is inside-out tracking. Tracking the headset and controllers is crucial to providing deeply immersive experiences in Virtual Reality. Inside-out tracking means no more need for finicky infrared base stations and troublesome room set-ups. 

Cost for the gear has decreased while delivering the same quality of experience. Win win!  

To understand the new, let’s quickly talk about the old.

Positional Tracking - The Traditional Way

With traditional tracking, like that of the HTC Vive (which has been the industry standard for “quality” VR experiences), base stations (“Lighthouses”) are placed at opposite top corners of the room. 

They are equal parts transmitter and sensor. They emit wide-angle, two-dimensional infrared beams across the entire room. This is done 1 axis at a time, so left-right then top-bottom, repeatedly. Before each sweep they emit a powerful infrared flash of light.

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Each tracked device contains an array of infrared photodiodes (“photodiodes” is just fun to say - go ahead and try it, we’ll wait) connected to a chip. Remember those “dimples” all over the HTC Vive headset and controllers? They’re not just for looks! This chip measures the time between the infrared flash and being hit by the laser sweep for each axis. 

The PC is then able to determine the angles that each “dimple” was hit with by infrared light and use that information to determine its position in the room. Pretty cool, huh?

While this tech has brought the VR industry leaps and bounds forward, it is not without its drawbacks:

  • It is relatively expensive (and contributes to the overall hefty price tag of full VR rigs)

  • It requires mounting lighthouses to sturdy surfaces (aka - you’re probably going to have to drill into the walls), otherwise your experience can be pretty jittery

  • Lighthouses are very sensitive to interference. Reflective surfaces in the room and especially sunlight can cause issues with the infrared signals, which can also be incredibly disrupting and ultimately make a person feel sick. No one wants to feel sick in VR! 

Meet Bob. Bob’s headset tracks from the inside out. Be like Bob.

Meet Bob. Bob’s headset tracks from the inside out. Be like Bob.

The New Way – Inside-Out tracking

Inside-out tracking uses outward-facing cameras that are integrated into the Head Mounted Display (HMD) and allow the headset to see the environment and any handheld controllers. Sensors and lighthouses that would normally tether a user to a desk have now been integrated into the headset itself. Less hardware, less hassle. 


Inside-out tracking differentiates itself from outside-in tracking by the location of the cameras that are used to determine the object’s position in space. Where previous headsets required lighthouses to flood a room with infrared light to determine the position of the headset, in inside-out positional tracking, the camera or sensors are located on the device itself.


Just like your smartphone swallowed your windshield GPS unit, the new method of tracking gobbled up the lighthouses making them obsolete. 

But wait! There’s more! As a bonus feature, some headsets with inside-out tracking (like the Oculus Quest) feature “guardians” that can remember a physical room and do not require a user to re-map the space every time that the headset is used in that room. But just in case, they’ve made this all-important safety step super easy and straightforward. If the headset doesn’t recognize the space it’s occupying as a space in its memory, it automatically takes the user through the process. 

No more bumping into furniture when the immersiveness takes over!

What does it all mean?

Improvements to positional tracking in Virtual Reality headsets have made the technology more portable and more viable. 

It’s not only way cooler for the kids in the basement having lightsaber battles, it’s also proving its worth as a solution in industries that are leveraging this powerful tool. And somehow the price has actually gone down! These new headsets boast improved tech as well as drastically lower cost than their predecessors. Better tech, lower price. Again, win-win! 

It’s okay if your mind is blown, so is ours and we work with this stuff daily!

One of our developers had this to say about Inside-Out Tracking:

Inside-out tracking is an important technology because it helps us make compelling VR portable, and as the rise of smartphones showed us, portability and accessibility are a powerful combination.

–Nate Logan, Technical Director, VisionThree, Indianapolis, IN

And remember there’s no point ditching the lighthouses if you don’t ditch the wire tether while you’re at it – which means ditching the external PC too. This new crop of Virtual Reality hardware has ushered in a truly untethered VR experience. Users can now move about their physical space unencumbered by distracting cords, and no longer have a need for mounted lighthouses, or even an external PC.

It is no different from a time not so long ago (depending on how old you are) where computers filled rooms, then tables, and now fit into pockets. Technology is shrinking, becoming more integrated into our daily lives, and is well within reach of “normal” people. And that’s when things start to really heat up in terms of uptake and evolution. If this truly is the beginning of something... and it is... it is absolutely incredible to think of where this technology could take us and what a ride it is going to be. 

Just think… Virtual Reality will be “pocket sized” soon enough. Will you be ready? 


VisionThree, LLC (a.k.a. V3), is an interactive creative agency headquartered in Indianapolis, IN, USA. Focused on Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, and Touch interactive, we serve and support clients globally with innovative and immersive experiences. V3 specializes in creating experiences that engage, educate, and entertain. Please learn more at VisionThree.com

Eric Davis