IMAGE: ZLATA IVLEVA / MASHABLE
It was apparent pretty quickly after I started messing around with it: Oculus Quest is the best virtual reality platform out there and it isn't even close. But I still wonder how far it can really go.
In video games, graphics tend to get the most fanfare. If something is dull but it looks especially pretty, it's generally going to attract a more favorable response. So when we see some new VR tech announced, like Valve's high-end Index, the focus tends to center on resolution. How much better does this new hardware look compared to all the rest?
Quest, which is out on May 21 alongside the second-generation Rift S, challenges that notion. It's wireless VR, but with significantly more power than mobile solutions like Gear VR or cardboard. What you see inside the headset doesn't look bad by any stretch — far better than mobile options, certainly, and roughly on par with the Rift — but the thing that makes it appealing is its all-in-one design.
You don't need sensor stations or an external PC. There's a smartphone app that handles day one setup, casting, and store purchases (there's also an in-headset store), but that's it. All of the heavy lifting is handled by the Quest; you just put on the headset, spend a minute or so setting up your play area, and you're off.
The experience sells itself. All it takes is a couple rounds of Beat Saber, a game that I'd argue is the first real "killer app" for VR. It's a rhythm game where you hold different-colored lightsaber-like energy swords in each hand. You play by slicing boxes in half as they slide down a Guitar Hero-like note highway. Arrows on each box tell you which direction to slice. There are also obstacles to dodge and bombs to keep your swords away from.
The soundtrack is filled with fast-moving techno beats that are meant to get your body moving. It's an astonishingly powerful VR experience regardless of the hardware you're using, but Quest feels like the ideal home for Beat Saber. You're not wired to anything, so you're completely free to lose yourself to the rhythm.
I can't get enough of it. I think it has the immediate stickiness that a lot of other VR options lack because of the low fidelity of experiences (on the mobile side) or the complexity of setting everything up (on the PC side). It's plug and play.
It's also a newcomer in a crowded market for a young technology that hasn't exactly found its generational cadence just yet. I'll bet most of you out there in reader land don't know the difference between a Vive and a Vive Pro without looking it up. Or a Rift and a Rift S. And now there's this Index that came along out of nowhere, offering modest improvement on hardware that, in the case of the Rift S specifically, isn't even out yet.
It's a confusing time to be a VR enthusiast, to be sure. Most of us have already spent money on one platform or another. That doesn't mean we're locked in forever, but this is expensive gear we're talking about. New VR tech is coming along too quickly for early adopters to realistically keep up.
In a vacuum, the Quest is an incredible proposition: $400 gets you a fully self-contained VR gaming console, the first of its kind. I just don't know if there's an audience for it right now. The Quest is already less powerful than a Rift or Vive paired with a recommended spec PC, and we're only a month or two from seeing even more powerful next-gen PC headsets hit the market.
At the other end of the spectrum, people who don't game on PC already have a range of options available. Gear VR and cardboard for the mobile crowd and PlayStation VR or (in a more limited sense) Nintendo's Labo VR Kit for the console folks.
So where does Quest fit into that picture? That's the problem. It doesn't really fit. The headset is arriving in this between moment for the developing tech. I think the experience itself delivers perhaps the truest realization of VR's promise. But it's at risk of being outpaced by next-gen products that are already dated for release.
Oculus Quest has the potential to deliver what VR is missing most: an inflection point. The pitch isn't better specs or richer graphics, but rather an experience that feels like an overall game-changer. The timing couldn't be worse, though. Oculus needs an audience, but the ideal audience for it is so caught up in a fast-moving market that Quest is at risk of being lost in the crowd.