Facebook's VR strategy has a split identity: one mobile, one PC.
Facebook has two new VR headsets coming May 21: one is the Oculus Rift S, a new version of the PC-connected Oculus Rift that adds self-contained tracking, a higher-res display and a new design. But there's also the Oculus Quest, a totally new standalone, self-contained mobile VR system that's going to arrive at the very same time… for the very same price. Both models will cost $399 (£399 in the UK, which converts to about AU$740).
It's an unusual situation. It's clear that Oculus is slowly converging its mobile and PC VR into one. But it's doing it with two headsets at once.
I've tried them both. Let me explain.
The Oculus Rift S has a familiar-looking design, shifting more to a PlayStation VR-like look and feel. A headband holds the slightly heavier headset in place and a bottom button slides the Rift S closer or further away to accommodate glasses.
Lenovo helped design and manufacture the Rift S, a move that Oculus executive Nate Mitchell says had to do with limited in-house resources while simultaneously launching Oculus Quest. Putting it on, it also feels a bit like last year's Lenovo-made Mirage Solo VR headset. There are five cameras around the headset that incorporate Oculus' new Insight tracking system, which doesn't require room sensors and works in a similar way to other self-contained Microsoft VR headsets. The Rift S also has built-in audio, just like the Oculus Quest and Oculus Go. You can also wear headphones, but the self-contained audio is convenient and comfy.
The Oculus Quest has room-tracking cameras in its headset, too, but only four of them. The extra camera in the Rift S, according to Oculus, is to add a bit more expansive room tracking for compatibility with Rift's existing library.
I kept jumping back and forth between the Rift S and the Quest, and both allowed full room movement and controller support that seemed more similar than different.
The Rift S will also have a new mixed reality-like way to paint room boundaries with a headset on, called Passthrough Plus. The outside world can be seen through the cameras in black and white, while 3D grid-like room boundaries can be drawn onto the space around you. (The Oculus Quest, it turns out, doesn't do exactly the same thing, but also allows room boundaries to be set easily.)
The Oculus Rift S works with the Oculus Touch controllers that also work with the Quest. These shared controllers have vibration, analog control sticks, buttons and dual triggers. They're able to recognize when your fingers are on or off the buttons, allowing for grabbing-like motions.
This means you could own both headsets and share a set of controllers. It gives Quest games a far more PC-like feel. That's the idea: In fact, Oculus' new initiative to develop more games across both platforms means we'll end up with more similarly functioning apps on both.
Speaking of common games, Oculus has announced that both Rift and Quest games will support cross-buy and cross-play. That means game libraries should cross-pollinate if you switch hardware and more players will have the option to join multiplayer experiences.
This isn't going to be strictly enforced, so publishers always have the choice of not making games and apps cross-buy. It also brings up questions of whether the lower-powered but still impressively performing Quest will dictate game design for the Rift on PC.
Some Rift games, including a few I tried at the Oculus demo event in San Francisco, aren't coming to Quest yet. The upcoming Job Simulator sequel, Vacation Simulator, plus two new high-end games I played on the Rift S (Stormland and Asgard's Wrath) are Rift-only. Stormland is a mysterious robot adventure set in a decayed world, while Asgard's Wrath is a combat-heavy epic. It's not clear if they'll make a move to Quest or not.
The $399 (£399) price for both devices gets even more potentially confusing. Even though the Quest needs no extra hardware to plug into, while the Rift S needs a gaming PC, the fact that both will go on sale at the same time for the same price suggests two products of equal quality. Will that be the case? Facebook and Oculus seem confident, and my experience with the Quest back at CES and during these new demos has convinced me it's the best standalone VR I've ever experienced. But still... how will consumers avoid confusing these two devices?
The Oculus Rift S, which will replace the existing Oculus Rift, is more expensive than the older Rift... and PC gamers might not even want to upgrade to it. The higher resolution seems better, but it's not a shocking upgrade. It's now 1,280x1,440 pixels per eye, about 50 percent better, with a slightly larger but similar field of view. (The mobile Oculus Quest will actually have a higher resolution, at 1,600x1,440 pixels per eye.) The convenience of built-in tracking could be appealing, but the Rift S still has a tethered cable, and Oculus hasn't discussed the possibility of eye tracking for pro or enterprise uses. The eye tracking enabled enterprise-based Vive Pro Eye arrives later this spring. But the Rift S supports the large existing Oculus Rift library, including experimental early access games.
The Oculus Quest will be new and self-contained. It's impressed me in every demo I've tried. Playing Beat Saber on the Quest showed me how fast and responsive the six degree of freedom controls are, and the games Oculus has demoed so far (Dead and Buried II, Beat Saber, Journey of the Gods) show promise. But the Quest is still powered by a mobile processor, it's limited to 64GB of onboard storage (or another unspecified and not yet priced higher storage tier) and Oculus will be curating the Quest store with a smaller selection of games to start (50 or more at launch). That curated approach sounds similar to what the Nintendo Switch experimented with at launch, but it will also mean that developers who want to experiment will be forced to the Rift platform instead of the Quest.
Two headsets with an increasingly similar design and software library suggests that, someday, there will only be a single headset. Qualcomm's reference design for mobile standalone devices that wirelessly stream to PCs could be a solution, but Oculus' Jason Rubin and Nate Mitchell didn't want to speculate on where things might head in the future.
In the current moment, it means that there are two headsets with a bit of a rift between them. The Oculus Quest will be the biggest standalone experiment Facebook has ever tried with its VR hardware, and whether or not everyone else will choose to come aboard remains to be seen.
But switching back and forth between Quest and Rift S, one thing became clear: The difference between mobile and PC felt like it was fading away. Rather than push further into higher-end VR, Oculus is converging the Rift S and Quest, and soon enough, there might not be any rift at all.
Originally published March 21.
Update, April 30: Adds new information following review of the Oculus Quest.