The future of virtual reality is finally upon us, and it looks fantastic. Two years ago at its developer conference, Facebook teased a wireless VR future in the form of Project Santa Cruz. This year, at Oculus Connect 5, CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the final evolution of the project: Oculus Quest. It comes out in Spring of 2019, offering Rift-quality games without wires, but we got some hands-on time with the headset to see if it lived up to that promise.
Like the bigger Rift, Quest is designed to deliver a PC-like gaming experience with high fidelity audio, and powerful graphics. However, unlike the Oculus Go, which Facebook debuted earlier this spring, Quest is also capable of spacial tracking in a package that’s completely designed for mobile thanks to a new technology called Oculus Insight. Insight, which took more than two years to develop, swaps out the Rift’s external sensors to track your movements in the virtual world with four front mounted cameras on the headset. These cameras allow you to play games in a smaller space like a New York City apartment — or a larger space like the living room of a larger home.
“There’s no external tracking accessories,” Oculus Quest product marketing manager Allison Berliner explained of Insight during an interview at Oculus Connect. “Everything you need is onboard. And because Oculus Insight is so robust, you can really have a precise and accurate experience in VR almost anywhere.”
The quest for mobile perfection
Whereas Rift relies on powerful computer processors and graphics cards to deliver an immersive VR experience, Oculus claims that it can bring the same high quality experience to Quest on more mobile hardware. Not only does Quest shed the cables for a truly immersive experience — you’re not “chained” to anything from the physical world as you navigate the virtual world — but the headset ships with a mobile processor more commonly found on smartphones. In fact, Quest relies on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835, a processor that’s found on last year’s Samsung Galaxy S8.
Berliner explained that even though the Quest relies on the Snapdragon 835, the performance is still top-notch because Oculus is building the headset just for VR. “And because we’re owning so much of the stack, we can get so much out of that,” she said. “What goes into the overall experience is much more than just compute. A lot of it comes down to things that are totally unique to VR — the immersion, the presence, and the interaction that comes from touch. We are bringing the best learnings, the best practices, to Oculus Quest.”
At Oculus Connect, through several game titles that were developed by Oculus’ in-house studio, Facebook created demos to showcase what Quest is capable of. Early titles — the demo staff claims that most of these games should be available for consumers to purchase in the future — include first-person shooter Superhot VR, a sports-oriented Project Tennis Scramble, a fear-filled Face Your Fear adventure, and Dead and Buried, a VR twist on laser tag.
Because Oculus Insight is so robust, you can have a precise and accurate experience in VR almost anywhere.
Thanks to clever tuning, the results were impressive. We came into Facebook’s demo expecting lags, screen door effects, and a low quality experience, but we were left completely blown away by our experience with Quest. The resolution for each eye is 1,600 x 1,440, which is a meaningful upgrade over the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, which have a resolution of 1,080 x 1,200 per eye. Despite the lower power of the Quest, the increase in fidelity goes a long toward making animations appear smoother and textures more detailed. The Oculus Quest is still behind the higher resolution of the HTC Vive Pro (1,440 x 1,600 pixels per eye), but it’s nearly half the price — and is completely wireless.
Getting started with the games was extremely easy. Because you don’t have to worry about turning on a PC, tripping on wires, or setting up sensors, all you have to do is don the headset. Like the Rift, the Quest comes in a similar setup, with an elastic strap that wraps around the sides of your head and a second strap on the top of your head to secure the Quest in place. The demo staff recommends that you put Quest on “like a baseball cap” by securing the rear portion first, and then sliding down the front portion over your face. You can also make adjustments to tighten or loosen the straps with the velcro tabs on the sides.
On the head, the Quest feels extremely comfortable. The package feels a lot lighter than it looks, and we didn’t experience any fatigue even after several 30-minute sessions of gameplay. In addition to the headset, there are also two hand controllers. According to researchers Yelena Rachitsky and Isabel Tewes at Oculus Labs, the hand controllers are important components that help transport our physical selves into the virtual world to make games feel immersive and lifelike.
The controllers come with a ring for the circular sensors, but unlike the Rift, these sensors curve to the top. There is a joystick, control buttons, and buttons for the grip and trigger. The controllers were lightweight and felt ergonomic to use.
Another difference between the Quest and the Rift is that the Quest comes with an open audio system. Rather than requiring headphones, the Quest uses spatial audio to aim sound at your ears. If you have a friend watching you play on the couch, Quest’s open audio design may be better — it allows you to still hear sounds from the game while still being able to carry on with conversations. We found the audio to be plenty loud, even in the noisy demo halls at the San Jose Convention Center, and we appreciated being able to hear and communicate with the demo staff.
Quest will map out your room before you start a game. This way, boundaries and obstacles can be avoided, and the goal is that you won’t collide with a wall or the living room sofa.
Game selection could be tricky
As a stand-alone headset, Oculus Quest will have its own store, like the Rift, and you can buy and manage your games directly from inside the VR headset. Users can also buy games through a companion app, Oculus staff informed me, though the company did not demo that process. Staff mentioned that the Quest will have its own Wi-Fi radio, so you can connect the headset directly to your home network. However, like a wearable, you’ll need your phone initially to setup the Quest. After that, you can do everything from the headset.
Although Oculus wants to see developers port over Rift games to the Quest, we don’t yet know how robust the software selection will be. Oculus has until Spring of 2019 to broaden the portfolio, but given how light VR content has been in general, it could be a significant issue. The games Oculus did have, however, were impressive.
Project Tennis Scramble showcases the Quest’s six degrees of freedom, or DoF, allowing you to move around in three-dimensional space. By comparison, the Oculus Go only comes with three DoF, and the Rift relies on external sensors to achieve the same sort of tracking abilities.
The spatial mapping still allows you to play fluidly in multi-player games even if your opponent may have a smaller space mapped for VR games. When we played our virtual tennis match against our opponent, we were in a smaller “living room” while he was playing in a larger game room. Despite the differences in sizes of our real-world space, Oculus Insight was able to map my space and allow me to still move around and hit the ball with forehand and backhand shots.
The graphics in the game weren’t lifelike, the experience being more akin to some of the more active games on Nintendo’s Wii system. This is not to say that the graphics was poor or felt unfinished, it’s just that it appears that the scenes weren’t as detailed as some of the games on the PC-powered Rift. Nonetheless, Project Tennis Scramble was still fun to play, and unlike the Wii, we felt like we were actually on the court. Spectators were cheering us on, and the spatial audio made the whole experience feel immersive.
Face Your Fear is an adventure game that will either get you over your phobias or leave you with nightmares. The goal is to explore the environment, using a combination of panning and navigation with the left and right joysticks, along with a bit of walking. Thanks to spatial mapping, when you’re approaching a physical wall in the real world, you’ll see a blue grid appear to alert you, and you can pan with the joystick to continue maneuvering the virtual space, similar to a first-person shooter.
As you’re exploring the environment, you’ll see phobia-inducing things pop out at you, and these range from bats to spiders and all sorts of crawly critters. The graphics were well done, and even though your brain knows that you’re not seeing a swarm of spiders running towards your legs, you still get the goosebumps. Oculus shows that even though graphics may not be top notch — you’re not getting Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080’s ray tracing effects — but it’s still an immersive experience.
The last demo showed off was Dead and Buried, which was another great example of Quest Insight’s mix of augmented reality and virtual reality. Like laser tag, this game requires teams of multiple players spread out over a large space. Quest Insight maps the terrain, and you can have boxes as shields. Press a toggle, and you can see the augmented reality — basically outlines of the terrain, boxes, and your teammates and opponents. However, release the toggle and you’re transported in time into a western setting. Those boxes in the real world transform into crates, and you’re engaged in a gunfight with the opposing team.
The wireless future
The Oculus Quest might not be the most powerful VR headset in the world, but it’s more than the sum of its parts.
The full package is what creates the visual fidelity in Oculus Quest.”
“We look at resolution on a per product basis, because there are a lot of components that go into visual fidelity,” explained Berliner. “So things that make this exciting is that on top of resolution, we also have the adjustable IPD, or lens spacing, and we’re bringing over our best-in-class optics from Oculus Go. The full package is what creates the visual fidelity in Oculus Quest.”
Sure, the graphics could be a bit better to match the Rift or Vive Pro — the Quest relies on a smartphone processor after all. But at no point during my experience with the Oculus Quest did we feel like we weren’t immersed in our adventures. The screen and the visuals were clean, and unlike the PlayStation VR, there wasn’t that annoying orange peel effect.
“For us, it’s the full package. It’s everything we’ve squeezed into the headset, and it’s also the form factor — the fact that it’s an all-in-one-system.”
The Oculus Quest headset is set for release in Spring of 2019, starting at $400.