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Facebook's Oculus Quest could be the Honda Civic of VR

Mark Zuckerberg’s new $399 headset offers an all-in-one design, playing higher-end games that used to require a powerful computer.

The new $399 Oculus Quest headset doesn't require a computer to power it.

The new $399 Oculus Quest headset doesn't require a computer to power it.

James Martin/CNET

If price is keeping you from buying virtual reality gear, Mark Zuckerberg has a new headset for you.

The Oculus Quest, a $399 VR headset that Facebook's CEO unveiled Wednesday and that's due out next spring (the company typically announces new prototypes months before they go on sale), is designed to address several nagging complaints early VR users have had about the current generation of headsets.

On the outside, the Quest looks like a typical VR headset: A big black box slips over your head and rests just above your nose, placing the screen inside so close to your eyes that your brain is tricked into believing you're in a computer-generated world. It also has a set of cameras built into its sides looking out into the real world to pinpoint your location in a room and work with a set of hand controllers that will come in the box.

"This is the all-in-one VR experience we've all been waiting for," Zuckerberg said at Facebook's Oculus Connect developer conference in San Jose, California. "This is it."

At its heart, the Quest represents Zuckerberg's strongest push yet to get us to buy into VR. In the four years since he bought Oculus VR for more than $2 billion, Facebook has released a series of devices to appeal to hardcore fans and newcomers alike.

So far, it's been a mixed bag.

People are expected to buy only 8.7 million VR headsets this year, up from 7.1 million last year and 6.7 million the year before, according to data from industry watcher SuperData Research. That includes Oculus gear such as the entry-level Oculus Go, a $199 headset designed for less-sophisticated games and experiences, like watching videos or chatting with friends.

There's also Facebook's powerhouse headset, the $399 Rift, which competes with HTC's $499 Vive and Sony's $299 PlayStation VR. Released in 2016, two years after Facebook's acquisition of Oculus, the Rift requires a computer to power its rich VR experiences, like dramatic spaceship battles and lush lively computer-generated forests.

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What sets the Quest apart is that it will offer high-end VR experiences without the need for an expensive PC to power it. Instead, it's powered by a self-contained computer running Google's Android operating system software typically found on phones. The result is a device powerful enough to run many dozens of the Rift's games, an effective middle ground between Facebook's entry-level Go and high-end Rift.

Anshel Sag, an analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy, believes Facebook will put most of its marketing muscle into promoting the Quest. He compared it to mass-market cars that aren't the cheapest but aren't muscle cars either. "This is their Honda Civic," Sag said.

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Mark Zuckerberg said he's still a long way from his goal of getting 1 billion people to try VR.

James Martin/CNET

All told, Zuckerberg said he'd like 10 million people to use each of his company's devices. He didn't say how many people use Oculus devices today, but said he expects the Quest will help the company make significant headway.

"We have this saying at Facebook that the journey is 1 percent finished, and in this case, not even quite," he said. "This isn't a question of when we're going to get there, it's how."

Games, games, games (and Star Wars)

Since buying Oculus, Zuckerberg has talked up VR's potential as a new learning tool, a new medium for communication and a new way for us to interact with computers.

As he talked about the Quest on Wednesday, though, he shifted almost entirely to VR's potential for gaming. He said that over 50 games you can play today on the high-end Rift will also run on the Quest, including popular and top-selling titles such as the adventure title The Climb, the shooting game Robo Recall and the puzzle game SuperHot.

That, Oculus executives said, is the result of decisions the company's made to focus on games and the 2.6 billion people around the world who play them.

"It is an audience that is enthusiastic, wants their games, that's willing to invest both their time and their money," Hugo Barra, Facebook's vice president of VR, said in an interview.

To help get more people interested in VR, Barra said Facebook has increased its investment beyond the $500 million it committed to two years ago, though he declined to say by how much. The cash boost seems to be an acknowledgement that game and app makers still need financial support as they experiment to find what apps will attract wider appeal beyond VR fans.

"We're putting tremendous amount of energy and our resources into these platforms," Barra said.

Vader Immortal will be a three-episode VR experience releasing alongside the Oculus Quest.

James Martin/CNET

Oculus has also struck a deal with Disney's ILMxLAB, an entertainment division of Lucasfilm that's produced games like the VR game Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire, where you and friends playing along dress as Stormtroopers and infiltrate Darth Vader's castle.

A new three-part episodic series, which will go on sale alongside the Quest but doesn't yet have a retail price, will be called Vader Immortal. The company didn't say much about what it will entail, except that it'll be a story involving the popular villain that occurs before the events of the original Star Wars movie that came out in 1977.

ILMxLAB said it was motivated to do the deal because it believes that VR will help break down the barriers between fans and the Star Wars world they'd like to live in.

"Whether it's watching movies or playing video games, there's always been a separation between you and the Star Wars universe," said Mohen Leo, director of immersive content at ILMxLAB. In each case, he said, there's something happening on a screen away from you.  "VR is really the only medium that can fulfill that fantasy of stepping into the world of Star Wars and being there yourself."

Whether consumers will buy into this whole vision is unclear. But with the Go, the Rift and now the Quest, Facebook believes its first-generation product lineup is complete, though it didn't say when the next-generation hardware will appear.

"This is all still early," Zuckerberg said. "This is what we need to do for VR to succeed and get to the future we all want."

Oculus Connect: Everything announced at Facebook's annual VR conference.

VR's missing link: You likely haven't bought a VR headset yet and it's beginning to show.