The Birth of the Backpack Workstation

Wednesday Aug 2nd 2017 by Rob Enderle
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HP's new PC could be just the first of many new solutions designed to meet the mobility and performance requirements of virtual reality.

HP announced a backpack workstation this week, and the idea kind of fascinates me.

Wearable and laptop computers traditionally must trade off a lot of performance for portability, which, for most, results in an acceptable exchange for day-to-day work. Vendors also sell point thin-client solutions which can provide, when using high-speed wireless networking, even higher portable performance.

However, if you are doing high-resolution virtual reality (VR), the performance hit you’ll take on a typical portable computer and the network lag you’ll get with a thin-client solution are often unacceptable. Either you end up with unacceptable quality or unacceptable latency. To get around this, you’d typically need a VR headset cabled to a workstation, which is neither particularly mobile nor, in my opinion, particularly safe, thanks to the tether.

This week at the SIGGRAPH conference, HP announced a backpack workstation based on their backpack VR gaming rig. For the right jobs, this could be just what the doctor ordered.

Gaming and Workstations

In the past, there has been a lot of cross-pollination between the gaming and workstation segments. For years, gaming PC companies had some workstation customers who generally didn’t want to be identified. These customers needed the more cutting-edge performance and lower prices that a gaming rig could provide over a workstation. They didn’t need to wait for the certifications and didn’t need the higher accuracy and reliability that a workstation provided as much as they needed performance and/or price.

The idea of the backpack VR rig came to fruition on the gaming side first because tethered VR gaming has largely been, outside of flying and driving simulators, a near non-starter due to the problems and risks associated with the tether. Granted, even with a backpack rig, you need a lot of free space and maybe a spotter to keep you on your feet. But at least with the rig, you weren’t suddenly tripping over or running into the length limitations of the tether. Having a battery-powered backpack also meant you would have more choices of where to play and maybe find a room without stuff to trip over.

Need for Mobile VR/MR

The markets for a solution like this tend to hover around military for battlefield simulation, design for creation in 3D space (everything from cars to buildings, particularly interior design and space planning) and sales for those that want to provide customers with a more realistic view of a product they can’t showcase at scale in person. Other possible uses include remote exploration, much like what is being done with the Mars Rover and Microsoft Halo, and onsite simulation for things like architectural remodeling, landscaping and entertainment (both virtual staging and green screen direction).

The backpack PC might also have uses for advanced on-site drone piloting for search and rescue where people are using artificial intelligence (AI) to help identify victim locations, fuel sources in fires or unseen dangers to in-field response teams, as well as to help lay out search grids and ideal equipment placement.

HP's Solution

The HP backpack workstation solution is interesting. The placement of the battery packs on the waist takes weight off the shoulders and allows for quick battery changes without putting the system into suspend or hibernate. With enough battery packs, you basically have unlimited use time.

The pack itself is partly modular, so you can separate the workstation from it easily and use it in a more conventional fashion with a floor dock. This means it can be used as both a standard workstation and as part of a tethered VR solution when needed, providing greater flexibility. Outdoor use will be somewhat limited because it isn’t yet a fully hardened design and finding hardened VR glasses is problematic for now. That could change with future iterations as those that do oil field prospecting or have a military use for the offering start asking for more options.

The Wearable VR Future

We are seeing a resurgence of innovation in the PC/workstation space that has long needed it. The HP Z VR Backpack G1 Workstation is only one example that the market is again looking at creative ways to use PCs to address unique problems. It won’t be the last, and this product, while tightly targeted at unique work cases, is a harbinger of products to come that will increasingly blend the virtual and real into field solutions that will enable our engineers, soldiers, designers and directors to expand their capabilities and stretch their creativity.

Apparently, the future isn’t just virtual, it is also portable. Go figure.

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