Oculus is A/B testing the future of VR with two new high-end headsets – only one of which cuts the cord.
It's been almost a year since Oculus dipped its toes into the waters of a cordless virtual reality future, with the launch of its Oculus Go headset. The device provided a solid but no-frills intro to VR, without the costs or cords of higher end solutions.
Yet, as time and technology march on, that entry-level kit has become predominantly a media viewer. Its virtual cinema-sized screens offer a fun way to watch Netflix, but its single, limited function controller hasn't lent itself to more complex experiences – chiefly gaming. That's a problem, as gaming is where Oculus sees its immediate future, with an audience eager for new experiences and likely to have, or be willing to invest, in new premium hardware.
Enter, then, not one but two new high-end headsets: the cordless Oculus Quest, and the tethered Oculus Rift S, successor to the original PC-based consumer model of Rift from 2016. Both are significant improvements on Oculus' existing technologies, packing in three years of advancements into sleeker, more impressive units, but a closer look reveals overlapping visions of how VR may evolve further in future.
Oculus Rift S
Oculus Rift S needs to be connected to a PC, with the computer running the software and outputting to the headset
First, the Rift S. Like its predecessor, it needs to be connected to a base PC, with the computer's graphics card and processor running the software and outputting to the headset. However, S offers some much needed quality of life improvements, now with only one cord protruding from the left-hand side of the visor, rather than the previous tangle of three. The Rift S is also more usable with gaming laptops, needing only a USB port and display port – the original needed a ridiculous four USB sockets.
While the visuals on Rift S are overall an improvement on the first model, there is a bit of a trade-off. The display resolution is bumped to 1280x1440px per eye (up from 1080x1200 per eye), but this is now on a single fast-switch LCD screen, rather than the previous two Pentile OLED displays. The individual optical lenses inside the headset do the grunt work, delivering bespoke images from the screen to each eye to create the immersive 3D worlds. The refresh rate also drops on the Rift S, down to 80hz from 90hz.
Unlike the Oculus Go, the Quest is more advanced, capable of running almost all the same games as Rift
Then, the Oculus Quest. While it's tempting to view it as a replacement for the Oculus Go, about the only similarity is that they're both cordless. Quest is far more advanced, capable of running almost all the same games as Rift, and offers twice the range of motion as Go. Quest also recognises the Oculus Touch grip controllers, giving players full two-handed interaction with virtual worlds. Unlike the Rift S, the Quest opts for an OLED display, with an even higher per eye resolution of 1600x1440px, but at a lower 72Hz refresh rate. Oculus hasn't yet provided WIRED with full specs as to what's powering the Quest internally, though it's widely reported to be a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 chip.
Which should you go for?
There are smaller differences between the two. Only the Quest allows internal lens positioning to be adjusted to better match players' eye spacing, but Rift S feature a dial to adjust the physical fit on a user's head. Both abandon the external 'constellation' sensors of the original Rift, instead gauging position in real space with onboard outward-facing sensors; five on Rift S, four on Quest. In practice, these didn't greatly alter the experience enough that one headset outshined the other.
Players can expect 50 games at launch on the Quest, and while its ecosystem will be initially distinct from that of the Rift, Oculus will be supporting crossplay and, eventually, crossbuy. The goal is for gamers in multiplayer scenarios to be unable to tell whether they're competing against someone on a Rift, Rift S or Quest.
Testing both units at a preview event, that ambition seems more than achievable. Despite the Quest having to do all the hard work onboard, the fidelity of experience was phenomenal. The lower refresh rate didn't present any problems on any of the games tested on it, and while pixels could just about be discerned in static menu screens, as soon as there was any sense of movement, everything felt real and smooth. You're in the world, no questions asked.
Oculus Rift S now has only one cord protruding from the left-hand side of the visor, rather than the previous tangle of three
The freedom from cables also works in the Quest's favour. When playing Coatsink Games' Shadow Point, a puzzle-adventure narrated by Patrick Stewart, it's possible to physically walk up to in-world objects and interact with them, gripping, twisting and turning items with the Touch controllers. Throw in accurate tracking of the controllers' positions and rhythm action games such as Beat Saber come alive on the Quest. The game requires you to slash red and blue lightsabers through oncoming blocks in time with music, while ducking and dodging obstacles – it's a tremendously physical game, and being able to engage without fear of tripping over a tether is a huge step forwards.
Over on Rift S, Asgard's Wrath impressed. Described as one of the "biggest games made for VR", its combat mode sees you wielding various melee weapons and battling waves of monsters drawn from Norse myth. With incredibly detailed fantasy environments, it feels immersive, but what really stood out was again the accuracy of the controls. The Rift S detected not only where a sword or shield was held but the angle at which it was gripped. This allowed for a surprisingly realistic approach to one-on-one fights, with convincingly accurate swordplay.
Quest also recognises the Oculus Touch grip controllers, giving players full two-handed interaction with virtual worlds
However, that telltale tug of a cord still tears you out of the experience slightly, especially when you catch it trailing against a foot. The trade off is not having to worry about battery life, and knowing you can spend a few hours in the detailed worlds Rift S can conjure without having to pause for a recharge.
Perhaps the most interesting consideration is pricing. Both Quest and Rift S units are set to retail at £399 RRP when they launch this spring, around £200 less than the original Rift.
The identical cost and the similarity of experience feels like a free-market experiment – will consumers opt for the cordless, immersive freedom of Quest, and accept that its fixed hardware will mean console-style upgrades in future? Or will they prefer to stay chained to their PCs, but have a more powerful experience that might only require a new graphics card in future?
As an end user, it may not matter much – both models prove more than capable of delivering quality gaming experiences, although there are more questions over Quest's longevity as technology improves. Yet with its crossplay and crossbuy plans that will secure players' software purchases either way, Oculus seems to be hedging its bets whichever format the market prefers.