Oculus VR’s bid to produce the first truly mainstream VR headset is put to the test.
Developer: Oculus VR
RRP: £399 / $399 (64GB), £499 / $499 (128GB)
Buy from Amazon: Oculus Quest
A little bit of history
In April 2012, Palmer Luckey, a young virtual reality enthusiast who had previously founded Oculus VR with Scaleform co-founders Brendan Iribe and Michael Antonov, alongside Nate Mitchell, Andrew Scott Reisse, and later John Carmack of id Software, announced the Oculus Rift, a VR headset designed specifically for gaming. Following the demonstration of a crude Oculus Rift prototype at E3 in June 2012, Oculus launched a Kickstarter campaign to help make its VR headset a reality.
The campaign was announced in August 2012 with the aim of raising $250,000.
It raised $2.4 million.
On March 28 2016, after two pre-production models were released to developers and a collaboration with Samsung resulted in the Gear VR headset for Samsung’s smartphones, the consumer Rift – which would require connection to a moderately powerful PC in order to run – was finally launched to the public. This was not however, before a $2 billion buyout of Oculus VR by Facebook.
In 2017, following the success of the Rift, Oculus released the Oculus Go. A self-powered stand-alone VR Headset in partnership with Qualcomm, a large manufacturer of mobile processors, which required no PC to run. The Oculus Go uses standard motion sensors similar to those found in a smartphone or Wii Remote, meaning it is only capable of what is referred to as ‘three degrees of freedom’ (3DoF) as opposed to the 6DoF of the Rift. This meant that users could look up, down and around an environment, but strictly in a static position. Move forwards or backwards, or stand up, and the illusion is entirely broken.
It is important to understand the differences between the original PC-powered Oculus Rift headset and the self-powered, portable Oculus GO to appreciate where the new Quest headset fits into the Oculus family.
Although wireless and portable, and featuring a Qualcomm-designed processor, the Oculus Quest is not to be mistaken for a successor to the Oculus Go. The Quest is capable of the same full six-degrees of freedom (6DoF) as the Rift. Offering full positional tracking via its outward-looking cameras, the Quest allows users to move forwards and backwards – physically into and away from the play area – and thus truly inhabit a 3D space. 6DoF also enables the use of full 3D controller tracking within that space, rather than the laser-pointer style controllers of the Gear and Go. The Quest is true virtual reality, and as such is essentially a wireless, self-powered Oculus Rift, rather than an updated Oculus Go.
A clear play for the mainstream
Requiring no PC, and devoid of the multitude of cables that blight other full VR headsets, the Oculus Quest is a clear play for the mainstream. The setup is relatively simple and the tutorial you are required to complete is a breezy, straightforward delight involving throwing paper airplanes and setting off small rockets from your hands. Also included is an impressive sequence where you are asked to dance with a human-sized robot, which does a great job of subtly highlighting the Quest’s room scale technology and the sense of presence it can deliver.
It is one of the best and most brilliantly thought out setup processes in any consumer product, and exactly what the initially complex seeming world of VR in general needs to succeed.
Before any software can be used on the Quest the user must first set up the headset’s guardian system. This system involves physically mapping out the available play area by touching one of the touch controllers to the floor and then drawing around the outskirts of the room so that it can warn you if you get too close. The system works very well and consistently recognises and picks up multiple environments in which it has been set up.
Of course, it is important to remember that the guardian system is not adaptive to any changes in the environment. It simply remembers the information you put into it originally. Any furniture that is moved in the room after the boundary has been created will obviously not be picked up. Neither will any wandering family members or pets that come strolling through your play area. Thankfully, if an environment is changed, the guardian system is very user friendly and only takes a few seconds to redraw if necessary.
The Quest requires a smartphone for it’s initial setup, but otherwise is a simple process that is clearly explained step-by-step via the app and then through the headset itself. This video covers the initial steps.
The Touch controllers themselves are also very good. Whilst not as good as those bundled with the recently released (and £900+) Valve Index, they are capable of some very precise movements and are certainly better than previous VR controllers. There are many examples online of people performing incredible feats in the rhythm game Beat Saber using the Quest, which should prove to anybody familiar with the game that the hardware’s tracking ability is more than adequate for the vast majority of players. The fact that the controllers are tracked completely using the headsets built-in cameras rather than via the external base stations of its competitors makes it all the more impressive.
A friendlier looking device
This is a smart and sleek product with a nice material covering, giving it a soft, textured appearance. It is a far friendlier looking device than the masses of plastics and cables of other headsets. This minimalist design does come at the cost of comfort however. It isn’t immediately obvious that the top strap can (and should) be loosened entirely until the back strap fits securely all the way back between the bottom of the skull and the top of the neck, and it takes a while to incrementally adjust this for the perfect fit. Once this is done it makes a world of difference, but it still puts a lot of pressure onto the forehead, and is never as comfortable to wear for long periods of time as the current VR comfort king, the PlayStation VR.
This form factor is of course all in service to the Quest’s greatest selling point; the truly wireless, cable-free VR experience it offers. Flailing arms and erratic movements are a staple of VR gaming, and to not be constantly finding your arms tangled in hanging cables or feeling the tug of your PC tether pulling at your head is a truly transformative experience.
Indeed, the true benefits of this freedom can take a while to fully appreciate, especially if you are used to previous VR headsets. It is easy to find yourself stuck in old habits, standing in the PC room you used to use your headset in, or finding yourself instinctively facing towards a monitor or TV screen when there is absolutely no need to do so. With the Wii-Sports-alike Sports Scramble allowing the option of mapping out a full tennis-court-sized arena, why even limit yourself to the house? All of this is made possible by that full inside-out head and hand tracking. And it’s a genuine game changer.
As with the Oculus Go, the Quest has two built-in speakers on either side of the headset that fire audio directly towards your ears. This is a great way to keep the overall weight of the headset at a minimum, and the sound quality is ok, but a decent pair of earphones will definitely improve the sound quality provided by default.
One element of the Quest which seems slightly suspect is the battery life. The quoted hours are 2 hours of gaming or 3 hours of media viewing, and this seems to prove mostly accurate in real-world use. It does however have a tendency to leak a lot of power when left in standby. This can no doubt be attributed to the headset’s Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and instant-on capabilities (by default it is set to go to sleep after 15 seconds of inactivity, and automatically wake up at the first sign of contact), but it can prove frustrating picking the headset up after a day or so without use to be greeted by a near-dead battery. The unit can be powered off fully (via an in-headset option or by holding the power button) but this obviously disables the instant-on feature and requires a short boot-up period before it can be used again.
Luckily the Quest’s fast charging ability means it takes only half an hour to return to around 75% charge. You can of course also use the headset whilst it is plugged in using the very generous 10-foot charging cable, but this defeats the purpose of the device and is situated on the side of the headset towards the front, where any flailing arms will undoubtedly catch it.
Fully-fledged ‘real’ VR
Much has been made of the supposedly outdated Snapdragon 835 system-on-chip (found in smartphones like 2017’s Google Pixel 2) powering the Quest, and many questioned how it could deliver true VR experiences that are in any way comparable to its PC-powered competition. Well the fact is, it gets closer than anybody could have expected. There are some trade-offs admittedly when directly compared, but these trade-offs are often outweighed by improvements in other areas. Out and out graphical fidelity – textures and geometry etc. – are understandably pared back in some games, but not to the extent that you might think. This however, is often offset by the sharp and clear image that the brilliant Quest screens can provide – something that is arguably equally as important in terms of selling the sense of presence that the best VR can deliver.
The Quest sports two OLED panels with a resolution of 1440×1600 per eye and the image they produce is very impressive. There is still a faintly visible “screen door” effect, and the pixel structure can certainly still be seen over the image, but it is drastically reduced compared to older headsets and faint enough to be easily ignored in most software.
Beat Saber, Superhot VR and Pistol Whip are three of the best games currently available for the system
Make no mistake, this is fully-fledged ‘real’ VR, and it is to the designers great credit that this doesn’t feel like mobile technology in action. There is some serious engineering and optimisation going on here, and the Snapdragon 835 is truly punching above its weight. The fact that it is not only rendering some pretty impressive visuals with its modest power, but also powering those fantastic hi-resolution screens, makes it even more impressive.
One note of concern with regards to its computing power would be the extent to which the Quest may be left behind as new, more demanding VR games are inevitably released for the PC powered headsets. How long will developers have the desire and ability to keep downscaling their games to run on Quest? Perhaps in recognition of this Oculus themselves have recently launched the Oculus Link; a cable allowing for the streaming of games from a PC. Of course, this new feature adds a cable to the otherwise brilliantly cable-free experience of the Quest, but it opens up a new world of VR games previously inaccessible to Quest owners (those with the required PC at least).
As welcome as this option is, native Quest games and quality PC ports are what will make this headset a viable platform in its own right, so the leap of faith from a consumer point of view is to trust that developers will keep supporting it going forward. Could the sheer pace at which mobile chipsets are advancing mean that we should expect incremental updates to the Quest on a regular basis, like we do in the smartphone market? Or is this regarded as a new gaming platform which we can expect to be supported for a number of years? Only time will tell.
Here now, and hugely impressive
Regardless, in the world of consumer electronics there is always something better on the horizon, but the Oculus Quest is here now, and it is hugely impressive. It’s easy to forget just how far VR has come in such a short space of time. From the initial reveal of a duct-taped prototype in 2012, some not-quite-VR mobile attempts from Samsung and Oculus themselves, to the release in 2016 of the original Rift, the HTC Vive from Valve, and the PlayStation VR from Sony, to be here with a relatively affordable, completely standalone headset that requires no PC or console to run, is a truly phenomenal achievement.
As a first attempt at a truly standalone, full-VR headset, the Oculus Quest is a triumph and comes highly recommended for those looking for either a first, a wireless, or just a genuinely excellent VR headset.
Buy from Amazon: Oculus Quest
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