The $400 Oculus Quest arrives this spring. There's nothing quite like it.
But will that be enough to make a dent?
I missed traveling to Facebook's Oculus Connect developer conference last fall, where the upcoming Oculus Quest was first announced and demoed. The standalone headset is expected in the spring, and it'll cost $400 all-in with the headset and controllers. That price is roughly £300 and AU$560. And unlike current PC-based VR gear, no annoying wall sensors or other accessories are needed.
But I was finally able to try out the Quest earlier this month, at CES 2019, where Facebook was quietly demoing Oculus Quest for those who may have missed it before. That's what I did the same day I tried every demo the HTC Vive Pro Eyehad to offer.
While the Vive's eye tracking possibilities point to where VR and AR are heading next, what I tried couldn't compare to my experiences in Oculus Quest.
And, really, I saw nothing else as exciting as Quest at the whole show. It won my personal best in show in Las Vegas without officially setting foot on the convention floor -- and unlike a lot of stuff at CES, it should be just a few weeks away, not years (or never). While the Quest has compared to many things including a Honda Civic, as I played it for the first time it reminded me more of the Nintendo Switch than other VR devices I've tried.
Price is not going to be easily beat
$400 for the Quest isn't cheap, but it's the cost of a game console. It's $100 more than a Nintendo Switch. It's spitting distance from an impulse purchase. Facebook seems intent on offering its mobile VR experiences at Amazon hardware-type prices: get more people in VR, and the value of VR increases.
Whatever the strategy, consider the price of everything else in VR and AR right now. The Magic Leap One is thousands of dollars. Smart glasses like the Vuzix Blade, which don't even play games well, cost $1,000. Other VR hardware like the PlayStation VR can be as low as $200, but requires something else to plug into.
And while companies like Google have experimented with low(ish) cost VR headsets like 2018's standalone $350 Lenovo Mirage Solo, Google's ambitions -- and execution -- in VR haven't been nearly as consistent as what Oculus has delivered (but Google's already dabbling in more advanced standalone VR, so expect future moves to match Facebook.)
In fact, Oculus already has a fully standalone VR product available at half the price of the Quest: The $200 Oculus Go came out in 2018, and delivers a great beginner VR experience. But what makes the Quest so notable is that it adds six degrees of freedom ("6DOF") -- meaning the headset can sense your motion in space across both directions and across all three axes of movement. And it can do that with sensors built into the headset, obviating the need for pricey and cumbersome sensors placed around the room you're in. The difference is massive.
This thing might be a killer fitness device (if I don't hit the furniture)
After playing a few active games (a tennis game that felt as good as a Nintendo title, a port of the PC and PS4 game Superhot that made excellent use of the motion controls), I felt seriously winded. I dodged, ducked, moved around. There are already weight loss-enabling fitness games for non-mobile VR systems, like Beat Saber. With the added six degree of freedom movement and the ease that Oculus Quest can be set up, fitness could be an amazing killer app. I have no idea how lots of sweat plus Oculus Quest will work out, but I'm willing to try.
The Nintendo Switch dabbles in some fitness games, like the recently-released Fitness Boxing, but the fully wearable Quest seems easy to use, and could end up with ports of some already-successful PC and console games soon.
The Oculus Quest allows full motion, and you can paint your virtual borders around your room to create a guardian mesh that alerts you when you're close to the walls or furniture. But the Quest doesn't actually "see" things in the room, so if someone moves a chair or a dog enters, you're out of luck. And credit to the Quest, but the motion controls were so good that I ran to try to hit a ball in the full-court tennis demo I tried, and a Facebook employee stopped me from crashing into something. I ignored the blue grid to chase the ball. I hope others don't do this.
Tracking stayed nearly perfect, even though the Quest can't see the controllers when out of view of the headset's cameras (motion controls complete the illusion and track the controllers). The Quest's controllers feel nearly like the PC-connected Oculus Rift's Oculus Touch controls, complete with helpful buttons and triggers.
But I did have a few hiccups, especially when bringing my hands near my face (the Quest requires the controls to stay far enough away to be able to track). When I raised my hands to my face in terror as I entered a spider-filled house in Face Your Fears 2, my hands vanished. They appeared again when I moved them back in range and pressed the control triggers. And in Superhot, a few hand motions glitched just a bit.
A future of strange possibilities
To be sure, the Oculus Quest will have limitations. It's still an unknown how easy it will be to port games to the Quest, which is exactly the sort of thing that's helped the Nintendo Switch become a killer home for indie games. Also, it's unclear what the true limits of the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 chip in the Quest will feel like using Oculus' optimized headset. More advanced VR standalone hardware will come down the line, including headsets with more graphics-powerful Snapdragon 845 processors and eye tracking. Plus, will a great VR headset that's mobile be enough to make a still largely VR-apprehensive consumer crowd hop aboard?
What interests me most is the full untethering of VR, and what that could mean for future experiences. Immersive theater or arcades where people wear these in groups. Perhaps even gyms where everyone works out in VR together. Would it make museum exhibits easier to set up, or encourage VR in classrooms to a degree we haven't seen before with simpler headsets?
Oculus Quest made for such a good demo that I can't wait to try more. It was nearly as good as any other PC or console VR I've ever played. Much like the Nintendo Switch, it breaks the boundaries of what "console" and "mobile" even mean. And for that reason alone, it could be the biggest change in VR in years.