Everywhere I've been, it's been the same: Entering mysterious worlds through kitchens or bedrooms or offices or hallways. No matter where I go, I put on the headset, draw the magical boundaries of my new space like a boy making his window out of magic chalk, and I'm there. No matter where I go, there I am.
That's the feeling with Facebook's newest, totally standalone VR headset, the Oculus Quest. Unlike the also-new, PC-connected Rift S (read my hands-on comparison to learn how they're different), the Quest doesn't need a phone or a PC or anything else to work. And yet, this little marvel ends up feeling improbably amazing for its size and $399 price tag.
While the Quest just became available, I've already been using it for weeks. Not just at home, but at the office and even on vacation. I've tried nearly all of the 50 or so launch games and apps. And so far, it's seriously impressive.
I said thethe first time I used it. Both are devices that seem to melt gadget boundaries, and aim to push mobile gaming into new forms. Like the Switch, the Quest is self-contained, and can go anywhere. It's a fully standalone, walk-and-move positional-tracking VR headset system. It costs $399 (£399; Australian pricing is TBA but the UK price converts to about AU$740). So, what's it like to travel with? Say, to Aruba, with my family? That's where I was already heading when Facebook gave me the Oculus Quest to review.
Three years ago, I thought VR was the future. So where's VR at now? The Oculus Quest is a pretty good barometer. It's a fantastic way to experience VR without wires or hassles.
A magic bag of universes
is peculiar. It can take me to many worlds while staying in one. And it can make the places I go all seem like home. Traveling with the Oculus Quest was like carrying the universe in a small bag. The stiff, round carrying case the Quest headset and controllers are packed into are a weird bundle to bring with a family.
I'm apologetic about the bulk in my backpack. But I also feel like a wizard. Taking the cumbersome gear out feels almost Victorian. It's like I'm a magician bringing out my hat and wand. This isn't casually cool, like a phone or even a Nintendo Switch. I'm wearing stuff. There are velcro straps.
And yet, it's portable. I'm firing up the headset in seconds. It works wherever I am. That's a special type of amazing.
Every time I draw my boundaries on the floor for my Guardian space, it feels like sorcery. Then, the black and white view of the real world dissolves into a color VR space, like the Wizard of Oz. The spaces I choose are usually smaller than what Oculus recommends (6.5 by 6.5 feet), because really, who has nearly 43 square feet of free, unobstructed play space at their disposal? In which case, I see my boundaries as I get near, a glowing blue grid. My reality fence. If I lean to the edge of the bubble, I can peek through, and the real world appears again in black and white, like I'm poking my head past the curtain. When I pull my head back, the VR world unpauses and I'm immersed again.
The Oculus Quest may not be the perfect solution to fix VR, but damn it's impressive.
I don't think of this as the final form, though. I'm wearing the prosthetics for where the future lies. Eventually, it'll be even smaller and easier than the Quest. Enabling a similarly smooth, and always available, doorway to fully immersive universes.
So yes, I tried to use this over a week in which I was otherwise occupied with family on a sunny vacation in the Caribbean. Here's what I discovered about that proposition.
What I learned while using the Oculus Quest on vacation
- It's not easy to do VR! By that I mean, it's not a lazy thing like leaning back and browsing on an iPad. Getting geared up, even on the wireless Quest, and then doing something is an active experience. When I'm zonked at night, it's hard to get motivated to jump into virtual worlds.
- It's an excellent offline device. Most early apps were made to run offline, and the Guardian boundary system worked great offline. I didn't miss not being connected.
- Stay away from sunlight! Bright sun seems to throw the Quest's camera tracking off a bit. Also, getting the lenses exposed to sunlight can damage the VR display. I ended up staying indoors, mostly.
- You need some serious play space. Apps can be set to "stationary" mode and boundaries can be drawn around your space limitations, but Quest always wants those 6.5 by 6.5 feet. And that means unobstructed by furniture, things, and definitely no random people walking around. That's more free space than most hotel rooms or office areas offer. A smaller area means the guardian boundary grid pops up a lot during gameplay, ruining the endless space illusion.
- It packs easily, but it's still a bundle. The carrying case made it something I could tote, but the stiff side straps mean the headset won't fold down as flat as you think. The case took up a major chunk of my backpack. The Nintendo Switch is miniature by comparison.
- Taking time away from reality for VR, even a half an hour, is a big demand on a vacation getaway. I'm with my family, taking in sun, enjoying a beautiful place. Every second in VR is a second I'm not there. The blindered goggles guarantee I can't multitask. It's not like headphones at all.
The transformative part: Mobility
Taking the Oculus Quest on vacation was an experiment. But it's not really the point. The point is that VR is now actually that portable. The point is that it's feasible to go places with it. Yes, the prosthetic feeling of it ends up being more like traveling with a CPAP machine than an iPad. But the Quest can end up feeling as transformative for my VR experience as my CPAP is for my sleeping.
The Quest has been impressive enough that I've started wondering about what else it could be used for. Training? Perhaps. There's no eye tracking, which is the real future of where immersive interfaces lies. The Quest App Store is locked off, unconnected to any OS like Android or Windows, or a larger ecosystem like Google Play. I have no idea how many developers will end up making homes here, and how much Quest will communicate to other services down the road.
Also, with the App Store walled off and with Facebook as the entity controlling it, there are. Oculus promises that the room boundary creation, and what the passthrough cameras see, won't be shared or collected by Facebook.
But the dream of VR being a magic set of goggles you can use anywhere has become real. The Oculus Quest is just about as good as most VR, but it's now wireless and self contained, and costs $400. That's twice the price of last year's Oculus Go.
The magic is in the tracking
The actual experience of the Oculus Quest isn't really about the headset or the display, which is great. It's about the tracking and the controllers. The thing to know about the Quest is that it takes a fantastic pair of Oculus Touch controllers with motion, haptic feedback and finger-motion sensing and sets them loose in a mobile headset running off a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 chip.
That alone feels like magic. Admittedly, it's not perfect: The self-contained tracking sometimes has hiccups and sometimes, in bright light outdoors, the Quest can't always track perfectly. But in general, it's these controls that have stunned me, because I've never seen any mobile or self-contained VR that's worked better.
The hardware delivers
The Oculus Quest's design looks nearly identical to the Oculus Rift, or even last year's Oculus Go. There's a set of plastic and fabric covered goggles, with adjustable velcro straps. It's particularly similar to what Oculus achieved with the Go: It's comfortable, has built-in spatial audio that pipes in from holes in the side rails where the straps attach, and worked perfectly over my large glasses. (There's a spacer for fitting glasses, but I didn't even need it.) Like the Oculus Rift, the Quest also adjusts the distance between lenses via a slider on the bottom, to fit for ideal inter-pupillary distance.
There are two headphone jacks, one on either side of the headset, but I always used the built-in audio. The Quest has either 64GB or 128GB of storage. The 64GB version I've been testing seems like enough, but apps seem to range from several hundred megabytes to a couple of gigabytes, and there's no microSD card slot.
The Quest uses four in-headset cameras to track movement in a room, including ducking, leaning, walking and anything else. The six-degrees-of-freedom (6DoF) tracking is like what many PC VR headsets now have, and Oculus Insight, the name for the tracking system, is also on Oculus' new Rift S PC headset. It works similarly on both. On the Quest, it sometimes had issues with bright light outdoors. On a patio, it had problems sensing my play area. Oculus suggests that the Quest only be used indoors, by the way. Also, never expose a VR headset's lenses to bright sunlight -- it can ruin the display.
The LCD display in the Quest, at 1,440x1,600-pixel resolution per eye, looks fantastic and crisp. If you look closely at the edges of the display, you'll see everything becomes more pixelated, because the headset uses fixed foveated rendering that reduces resolution at the periphery to get more performance out of the Snapdragon 835 mobile chip. Some VR headsets also use eye tracking to move foveated rendering around, following your fovea, the center of your vision, to only highly render what you're specifically looking at, but the Quest doesn't have eye tracking. I don't miss having it, not at this price.
The best part of the Quest hardware is the controllers. The Oculus Touch controllers are the same ones that come with the new Rift S, and they can do just about anything, much like the Touch controllers for the PC-based Rift. They feel like a split apart PlayStation controller. There are buttons, clickable analog sticks, dual analog triggers, plus the controllers even sense finger movement. Lifting a finger up or pointing can equal hand motions in games, and allows objects to feel like they're being grabbed. They have vibration feedback, and can register perfect motion all around. They feel as good as Microsoft's Windows VR controllers, but without needing a PC. They're a bit bulky to pack in a bag to travel, but they're my favorite VR controllers, period.
Oculus' new cameras allow me to see the world in black and white as I put the headset on, in a mode called Passthrough. The headset recognizes the floor level automatically. I can paint my room boundaries with a controller and a blue grid rises like a fence when I'm done. When I'm playing, that's my safety zone. If I get near the edge, I can lean in, peek through the grid and the VR world dissolves back to the real world. It's a brilliant and weird way to bubble-in my play space. But when I'm in VR, the headset won't sense new obstacles on the fly. I need to trust my space will be safe, at my own peril.
That's why, for a lot of people, the stationary mode might be best. It assumes you're standing (or sitting) still. I love the extra range of motion, though. I just wish the tracking system could somehow dynamically sense obstacles rather than ask me to draw the safety zone.
Battery life is about 2 to 3 hours, according to Oculus. A half hour of playing reduced the battery to about 80%. Considering how most of my VR play sessions don't go past an hour, this seems OK. An extra-long USB power cable is included.