There are ten new virtual reality headsets coming out in 2019, at least according to Valve — which is contributing one to that number.
Two of those are coming from Facebook-owned Oculus: the Oculus Rift S — which offers an iterative improvement over the Rift — and the Oculus Quest — a sort of hybrid headset that tries to walk the line between a self-contained, cordless experience and something that doesn’t break the bank to own.
Having spent about a week with the Quest playing through the likes of VR megahit “Beat Saber,” “Angry Birds VR: Isle of Pigs,” and “Journey of the Gods,” I can safely say that the Quest is the first virtual reality headset that feels genuinely like a pick-up-and-play experience while still offering enough fidelity to not make me feel like I’m playing smartphone games.
The Oculus Quest
Both the Oculus Rift S and the Oculus Quest will sell for $399 when they hit on May 21. The idea is that consumers will have to choose if they want a higher fidelity head-mounted VR display powered by their computer, or a self-contained system that just needs to be charged up to use.
Neither the Oculus Rift S nor the Quest requires any external sensors to work. Instead, they both make use of an array of cameras mounted on the outside of the HMDs. The Quest has four of them mounted on the rounded corners of the faceplate.
A suite of software built into the headsets uses the data collected by the cameras and the controllers to position the user in the real world and give them a set of virtual hands.
Where the Rift S is tethered to a user’s computer to function, the Quest makes use of a built-in Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 chipset and 4GB of Ram. That’s a slightly dated chip found in an array of popular smartphones including the original Razer Phone and the Samsung S8. Since it’s release in 2017. Today’s top-of-the-line phones tend to sport the Snapdragon 855.
The Quest comes in a 64GB version for $399 and a 128GB version for $499. The headset weighs slightly more than the Oculus S, at 571g and is slightly smaller. The Quest uses OLED display panels capable of displaying 1440×1600 per eye with a refresh rate of 72Hz. That’s a slightly lower refresh rate than the S, but better resolution.
The design of the HMD is fairly straight forward, featuring three velcro-adjustable straps that mean behind the head to form a sort of open, rubberized triangle of support. The display itself is wrapped in a fabric that gives it a more comfortable feel than the hard plastic found with most HMDs. A toggle on the right underside of the display adjusts volume and a switch on the right side allows a user to adjust the IPD (space between the pupils). One side of the display has a small power button and the other an input for charging the HMD with a provided USB cable.
The Quest comes with the same two controllers redesigned for the Oculus Rift S to work with both head-mounted displays’ six-degrees-of-freedom, inside-out tracking.
Inside the VR
The headset automatically goes to sleep after a few seconds when it’s laying on a flat surface and I found that it springs to life in about two seconds once you pick it up and slide it onto your face.
The first thing you’re greeted with is a message to either confirm your guardian or change it. The guardian is a software boundary you set to make sure you don’t walk into a wall, down stairs, or over a couch. Setting it up is amazingly easy thanks to the new system and the fact that the in-built cameras can show you your surroundings in a static-filled black and white live image. First, the software tries to autodetect where the floor is — something it was able to do in every case except when I was seated. Then it asks you to use one of the controllers like a laser pointer and draw a boundary on the floor around you. Once drawn, the line becomes a wall that disappears. If you approach the wall it shows back up again to warn you, if you cross the virtual line of the wall it turns red in that sport while crossing it. If you poke your head through the boundary, the real world comes into hazy black and white focus until your retreat to your created virtual space.
Once established — or confirmed — the user is dropped into a spacious modern living room with floor-to-ceiling windows that wrap around much of the space. There’s a couch, a fireplace gently flicking to the side, bookshelves, coffee table, a complete, trendy play space waiting for you. The most important thing in the room, though, is the floating menu that shows you your options, your purchased apps and the store where you can get more.
Selecting your title of choice launches you straight into the experience.
Once inside, the games I tried seemed just as robust as the same game played on the Oculus Rift. The key here, I suspect, is one of curation. Oculus is launching the Quest with a few more than 50 games and apps and they’re making sure they all run perfectly on the system.
Titles like the Oculus Rift S, like Insomniac’s tremendous open-world sci-fi epic “Stormland,” is unlikely to ever make an appearance on the Quest. This approach — at least at launch — seems like the right one for consumers. It gives customers a look at what they can experience with the Quest with the knowledge that everything available will perform perfectly.
The Good, the Bad
There are some downsides to the Oculus Quest. Most obvious is the decision Oculus made to go with a dated chipset. Relying on the Snapdragon 835, rather than the 855 or even last year’s 845 or 850, means that the Quest is going to feel and look dated much faster than if the company decided to ship with a cutting edge chipset. This underscores a concern some potential buyers might have with the Quest that is Inherent in the design: This is an HMD that can’t be upgraded. Unlike the Oculus Rift S, which relies on your computer to drive its programs, you’re stuck with the chipset and memory it launches with.
While I found the headset to be a comfortable fit, it did feel a bit more wiggly side-to-side than I would have liked. Even tightening the straps did little to alleviate the issue. There’s also a bit more light leak than I am comfortable with. This is due to the design of the HMD and how it rests on your face. It’s comfortable but, at least for me, there is a significant gap in front of my nose.
Ultimately, though, the Oculus Quest delivers on its promise, cutting down drastically on the annoyance of using virtual reality without charging a comparatively hefty price or cheapening the experience so much that it feels like a cardboard dip into VR.
There’s also a bevy of interesting software upgrades, like the short, fun VR introduction that kicks off the first time you use the HMD. It’s the sort of gently walkthrough that is perfect for showing friends what VR is all about if they’ve never tried it.
There’s also the ability to share the screen. What that means is that I could, for instance, cast the experience my wife was watching onto my phone so I could see what she was seeing. (That’s still in its early days and had some stumbles.) There’s also built-in options for quickly capturing screenshots, recording video in VR and even streaming live to Facebook (of course.)
Most importantly, I found that thanks to the quick guardian set-up, the fact I could take the headset anywhere and start playing within literal seconds, that I was suddenly spending much more time with the fantastic experiences found in VR. That portability also means I could take the headset to a big open space and not have to worry about using what meager, fragile surroundings I have access to in my home.
Virtual reality has a lot of obstacles to surmount before it gains the sort of ubiquity other bits of tech enjoy, but the Oculus Quest seems to have at least figured out one of them: Ease of use.
Paired with the $40 carrying case — which neatly holds the headset, controllers and charging gear in a rounded aesthetically pleasing pack — the Quest is approaching the sort of entertainment one might consider packing for a trip on a whim or taking to a friend’s to share. By nailing the sweet spot between functionality and cost, the Oculus Quest is the sort of virtual reality that is finally both easy to use and fun.