Despite billions of dollars in investment, a healthy number of competitors, and a wide range of options, virtual reality still has yet to catch on. It’s tough to pinpoint exactly why, but there area few obvious stumbling blocks. These headsets require a lot of financial investment from the user, and physical real estate too. The software selection is lackluster. It often feels like an expensive parlor trick. The most well-known VR company, Oculus, is owned by Facebook (boooooo!!).
But the sluggish movement on the VR front hasn’t stopped Oculus from plugging ahead. On Tuesday, the company released a new hardware iteration called the Oculus Quest, and it is the first VR headset I’ve used that I think I can unequivocally recommend without any major caveats.
The Quest uses “inside-out tracking,” which means that the sensors which track the user’s movement and position in physical space are all included on the headset. On the Oculus Rift, its first headset, the user had to set up two external sensors in order to track movement (an updated version with tracking similar to the Quest’s, the Rift S, is out this week as well).
Using the Quest makes the first-generation Rift seem like a prototype, like when you go to a museum and see an early PC prototype and it’s like six computer chips duct-taped to a piece of wood. For those unfamiliar, this is how the Rift’s setup process works: You need the headset itself and the external sensors all hooked up to a PC powerful enough to run the VR software. Altogether, a PC and the headset together will cost you north of a thousand dollars. You also need 36 square feet of floor space to move around in. After clearing out the floor space, setting up the tangled nest of cables, and calibrating the sensors (which need the user’s height, so God help you if you were planning to take turns with someone of a different stature), you’re read to play a slate of VR games or “experiences” that I’d describe as … fine.
The Rift’s biggest problem was that the investment required in money, time, and physical real estate put it out of bounds for almost anyone but the most hard-core VR acolytes. The headset, combined with the touch controllers that translate hand gestures into VR as well, provided an immersive experience. But the software selection was limited and, in almost every case, it failed to justify the hassle.
Compare all of that with how I set up the Oculus Quest in my small Brooklyn apartment this afternoon: I pushed a chair out of the way and strapped on the headset. No PC, no wires, minimal calibrating. All of the hardware needed to track the user and run games is housed inside the headset. From there, it was easy to jump in and start messing around with VR hits like Beat Saber, in which the user slashes laser swords in time to thumping electronic music. It is, as far as I’m concerned, the best VR game out there — and now it’s in a completely portable form.
The Oculus Quest feels analogous to the Nintendo Switch. It’s not the most powerful VR setup, but it more than gets the job done, and what it lacks in horsepower it makes up for in convenience. The Quest feels like something you could throw in a backpack and bring to a friend’s place. Unlike the Oculus Go, the least-capable model in the company’s line, the Quest isn’t much of a compromise. It splits the difference well between power and convenience.
Finding that balance matters for a few reasons. If VR is easy to set up and use, it’s easier for people to demonstrate to their friends, and make what was once a hypothetical into something accessible. The Quest lowers the VR entry barrier significantly, but not so low that it can’t hang with the Rift, its more powerful sibling. And if more people start using VR, maybe more developers start messing with it and coming up with novel applications.
Inversely, because the Quest makes VR so easy to jump into and gets rid of the setup hassle, it makes the current software selection look better in comparison. Less-than-exemplary software doesn’t feel like a complete waste of time when you no longer have to snake wires and rearrange your entire apartment to experience it. I guess the best thing about the Quest is that it has the possibility of making VR feel casual without feeling insubstantial. As of right now, it’s the ideal configuration. If even that doesn’t move the needle on VR, maybe it’s time to worry.