Preface: A New Posting Experiment
Over the years, I’ve occasionally written about new technology that I find interesting. I’m going to keep doing that, but I decided to use a more formal framework. The plan is as follows: when I get an interesting piece of technology, I’ll do a three-part set of posts about it. I’ll likely do a little discussion before I get it, but then I’ll get The Thing and live with it for a week. That’s long enough for the shine to dull and any glaring flaws to begin to become clear. Once I’ve lived with it for a week, I’ll write the first part.
I’ll write the second part after I’ve lived with The Thing for a month. If there have been developments or changes, I’ll cover them a little. I’ll discuss whether I’m still using The Thing, or if I stopped, and why. Does it live up to expectation, or does it fall short? Why?
The third part will be after a longer period. Right now I’m thinking a year, but I might cut that back to six months. The same basic ideas apply.
It’s important to begin a new series with a suitably worthy topic, so I waited until the first post could be about my latest obsession: the Oculus Quest.
Five weeks ago, the Oculus Quest’s official launch date was announced and pre-orders went live. Within a minute or two of that announcement, I had my order placed. While I was disappointed that I would have to wait over a month to get my hands on it, the delay was likely for a good reason: to give developers more time to polish the launch lineup of software. Disappointment notwithstanding, the delay was a wise decision. The extra weeks seem to have helped the developers quite a lot. I’ll get into that in a bit.
I’ve been a perfectly content VR user since Heather bought me a Rift CV1 two and a half years ago for Christmas. It was the crowning jewel of our gaming setup, built to let me plunge headfirst into Elite: Dangerous in fully immersive glory. I used the CV1 frequently, especially for the first year, but then my use began to die down. A leg injury, coupled with a long recovery, further reduced my usage of the CV1 until it was, more often than not, left to sit on a hook above my computer. It was fun, but my play space was too small to use for games like Robo Recall, and moving the entire setup to the living room was too big a hassle each time I wanted to switch the game I was playing.
All that changed when I got Heather a new gaming laptop (which, though not certified as VR Ready, was capable of driving the CV1) as well as a copy of Beat Saber. Overnight, I went from using my headset once every few weeks to using it for an hour or two a day. Beat Saber became an integral part of my gym routine, as well as a surprisingly important part of my mental well being.
The promise of the Quest was deeply appealing to me, especially as a regular Beat Saber player. The Quest is a standalone VR headset, meaning it has no wires. It doesn’t require a high-powered gaming PC to drive its graphics. Everything you need is contained within the headset and the controllers (though you do need to pair the device to your phone to perform initial setup.)
That means the CV1’s somewhat temperamental camera sensors and involved setup are no more. The Quest promises the ability to toss it in a case, go wherever you want, and within a couple of minutes, be immersed in a virtual world with whoever you want. You can play in a huge arena and spend your time running and crawling, or you can take it to bed and watch a movie. I would be able to use my gaming PC for all the things I wanted, and Heather could have her laptop back full-time. If I wanted to play Beat Saber in the living room, I could just toss the Quest on and play with no further thought.
A lot of other people have written far better reviews of the Quest’s design and capabilities, so I’m not going to dive into those. I’m going to focus on what I thought and felt during my first week of use with the Quest.
A bit over a week ago, on a rainy Tuesday morning, I got my notice from UPS. My pre-order delivery was scheduled for the day of general release. Sure enough, a couple of hours later, Heather sent me a message with a picture of a shiny new Oculus Quest box sitting on our counter. About 15 minutes later, she dropped it off to me at work so we could unbox it with a coworker who was eager to see it as well.
The initial setup took all of 10 minutes, most of which was waiting for some firmware updates to download and apply. I put on the headset and was floored at how sharp and crisp everything looked. We drew a quick guardian boundary on the floor and within 30 seconds were ready to fire up the included demos.
Of course, the first thing I tried was Beat Saber. Everyone around took a turn on the various demos as well as some cross-buy games I already had access to (since I owned them on my Oculus account from previous purchases.) Six people tried it that first day, and four of them said they were strongly considering buying one for themselves. (The other two were Heather and I, who had one already.) Since that first day, I’ve shown the Quest to eight others. Of the fourteen people I’ve offered my Quest to, all but one accepted gleefully and had a giggling, thrashing fun time.
After I went home for the day, we spent the evening downloading all the other games and experiences we wanted to try out. Once again, there are so many great reviews out there that cover the games better than I can, so I’m not going to dive into the particulars of each. Over the past week, I’ve sampled a bit of all of them, but most of my Quest time has been spent in Beat Saber, Vader Immortal, Robo Recall, Big Screen VR, and Guided Tai Chi.
Reaction: The Graphics
While I could tell the graphical fidelity was a bit lower than my CV1, the games present on both systems felt almost exactly the same. The motion tracking actually felt BETTER. The screen was sharp and clear. The drop from 90hz on the CV1 (or 80hz on the Rift S) to 72hz on the Quest was perceivable, but didn’t affect me in any real way. A week in, it still hasn’t. I haven’t had any motion sickness or “woozy” feelings.
The OLED screen produces nice deep blacks and bright, clean colors. The new lens design, coupled with the panels, have greatly reduced the “God-Ray” effect from the CV1, when rays of light would shine through the lenses like a shaft of sun piercing a cloud. While it wasn’t a deal-breaking experience, it was an annoyance with the first-generation hardware. I was amazed at how much they’d been minimized by the changes to the lenses in the Quest. They’re still there, if you know what to look for, but they really do just fade into the background, especially when you’re in a game and moving around.
Similarly, the increased panel resolution, along with new lenses, have greatly reduced the SDE, or “Screen Door Effect,” which made previous hardware appear as though you were looking at the world through a screen door. It’s another thing from the first-generation hardware that you could forgive, but was nonetheless an annoyance. It’s still there if you know what to look for, but it’s so minimal now that I don’t see it at all unless I search it out. I found it most visible when watching videos blown up to a large size in the Youtube or Big Screen apps. In general, especially on brighter, more colorful games, I didn’t really notice it at all, and when I did, it didn’t detract from the experience in the least.
Overall, the Quest’s graphics blew me away. This is a mobile phone processor, after all. It’s a testament to how far mobile processing has come in the last few years, and to the design abilities of the app developers, that they could squeak out as much fidelity as they have from this relatively low-powered hardware. More than raw polygon counts though, what matters here was the smoothness and art direction. Smart design choices hide the graphical concessions well in almost every app I tried. While I was aware that the graphics didn’t have the same “POW!” that my PC-powered CV1 gave me, I found that it didn’t matter. The completely cordless experience, coupled with the smoothness of the play, completely overshadowed concessions that felt more like artistic decisions than downgrades.
Throw in the fact that it’s possible for a moderately savvy user to use their PC to render SteamVR games and then wirelessly stream them to their Quest, and you can end up with the best of both worlds: a wireless headset, playing full PC level graphics and content, with a rich, gorgeous OLED screen. When you leave your local network and go out, your Quest can follow you and “fall back” on its natural graphical abilities, which are more than up to the challenge of providing clean, solid entertainment.
Reaction: The Controllers and Tracking
The tracking is one of the big changes to the Quest. The CV1 used one or more “lighthouse” cameras to detect bands of infrared lights on the headset and in the rings of the controllers. They hooked to your PC, but since you don’t use a PC with a Quest, they’re gone now. The entire tracking scheme, along with the controllers, has been redesigned.
In their place are a series of cameras on the headset itself that watch the environment around you to track the controllers, as well as your head’s movement (coupled with internal accelerometers and other sensors.) The cameras see the world in visible or infrared light, so you need to play in a well lit space. If you’re playing in a dark room, a cheap infrared light ($15 on Amazon) will work wonders for the Quest while keeping your play area appropriately cave-like.
Setting up the CV1 in a play area was a sometimes frustrating process that could take anything from a few minutes to half an hour. You had to position the cameras, get everything facing correctly, run cables back to the PC, then make sure it was all working. Once that was done, you could go through the multi-step process of telling the Oculus software where the cameras were, where your headset was, and how tall you were so that it could calibrate. If all of that went well, you could then set up your play area.
The Quest eliminates almost all of that. Put on the headset. If it doesn’t recognize the area you’re in, it will show you a black and white live image of your surroundings. You confirm the floor’s level, then draw a boundary of your play area with a controller. It takes 30 seconds or less. It’s intuitive and elegant, and it just works. This is a critical success for the Quest. If setting up new play areas was laborious, it would defeat one of the main purposes of having an easily transported, wireless unit.
The controllers feature the same basic button layout as the previous Touch controllers, but now the ring, which used to serve as a guard for your hands (wrapping down around under the controller) sits on top of the controllers, so that the cameras in the Quest can see it.
The original Touch controllers were the best video game controllers I’ve ever used. Better than NES, better than Genesis, better than Playstation. They fit, and felt, perfect.
The Quest’s Touch controllers (I’m going to call them Touch 2.0 controllers) don’t improve on perfection, unfortunately. The build quality is clearly not as good. The old controllers felt solid and durable. The new ones feel a bit cheap and flimsy. Part of that is the rubberized material they’re coated in. But other parts, like the wrist straps, have clearly been remade with cheaper, thinner materials. Given that Oculus is almost certainly selling the Quest at a loss to build a new market, I understand the need to save when possible, and overall, the controllers work well. They’re solid enough, they feel fine in the hand, and the buttons are responsive and tactile. They’re 9/10. But when you come from 10/10, going down to 9 feels like a huge downgrade. In the end, my only real gripe about the controllers is the cheap wrist strap with a slide that won’t stay put, so the straps loosen within 60 seconds of any kind of remotely quick moving (like Beat Saber or Creed.)
The tracking, however, is greatly improved in my experience. They feel even more precise than the old controllers, and precision is rock-solid. I dealt with constant tracking problems on the CV1, which had more to do with the laptop I was using (and abusing) than the sensors themselves. But it was a constant point of frustration, causing me to have to end more than a few sessions because I’d watch my sabers float off into space and refuse to come back, or disappear entirely. That hasn’t been a problem on the Quest.
In my first week of use, I think I lost tracking of one or both controllers a grand total of four times. Three were when I reached up to adjust the headset on my face, which causes the cameras to lose the controllers (since they’re touching, basically.) That’s understandable. The fourth was a real failure, and I had to quit the game and come back in to restore the controller. Compared to having to do that several times per play session, it’s a vast improvement.
Overall, the controllers work well. They feel a bit flimsier but have taken a few knocks without problem. They track beautifully and reliably. I cut off the wrist straps and put Wii-Mote straps in their place, and now they’re just right.
Reaction: The Headset Itself
The Quest is a touch heavier than the CV1, due to having a processor, memory, battery, and everything else crammed into it. It doesn’t have headphones, but does have small speakers that pipe audio towards your ears, though it’s also loud enough that others can hear it. Use headphones for loud music or pornography. Some users have reported comfort problems, but I found it to be every bit as comfortable as the CV1 was. It’s important to make sure the headset is fitted properly, with the back strap seated firmly around the back of your skull, 180 degrees from the headset itself.
If you could wear the CV1 without problem, I’d say you can safely assume the Quest will be comparable. I have a big, lumpy head and a neck that’s more muscle and tendon than neck, so your mileage may vary, but in my first week of use, I’ve had no problems with fatigue or discomfort.
Sweat, on the other hand, is the bane of my existence when using any VR headset. Without hair to wick sweat away, the torrential flood of sweat I produce during a long session of Beat Saber (or any other moderately active game) seems to pour directly down my face and over/onto the Quest. I had to squeeze out the foam facial appliance on multiple occasions. After my first long session, I noticed that the top of the Quest, which is wrapped in cloth, had soaked with sweat. Given that my toxic salt water is what ultimately killed my CV1, I now only use the Quest for longer periods when I have a washcloth, bandana, or head band on. I might look 80’s as hell, but I learned my lesson.
You look stupid anyway when you’re playing in VR, so you might as well go whole hog. I plan on adding wrist bands to the ensemble too, just to complete the look (and to give me something I can wipe sweat into.
The Quest’s adjustments are just like the CV1: velcro straps on the sides and top. They worked well and stayed put when I attached them. A week in, after multiple changes from different people trying it, the Quest’s straps show no signs of wear. We’ll see how they do long term, but I expect they’ll prove as durable as my CV1’s straps did.
Battery life for me has been excellent. The most demanding games seem to give the Quest a battery life of two to three hours. I was astonished after a 30-minute Beat Saber session to find that the Quest had gone from fully charged to 93%. I don’t know if it can actually run Beat Saber for 7 hours, but over the coming weeks, I plan to try to find out. The only time I found myself wishing for a little more battery life was when I was showing the Quest to a group of people. After 4 people each had a 30-minute turn, the Quest was low. Everyone would have been happy to use it more, but they were also happy to take a break. In single-player use, I rarely go more than 2 hours without a long break to rest and cool down, so the battery seems to be a non-issue for me. Your mileage may vary depending on your use pattern. The battery charges quickly, going from 25% to nearly full in about half an hour. I make sure to plug it in if it’s below half, and I’ve yet to run out during a session.
Overall, the headset impressed me. I would rather have a halo-style headband like the Rift S, but the portability the Quest’s headband gives is a good trade off. It’s comfortable enough, and secure enough, for casual 1-2 hour use. Watching the Lord of the Rings trilogy on it might require breaks, but lets be honest; after watching Boromir die, you’re going to need to get the sand out of your eye anyway.
I said I wouldn’t go into a deep dive on the games, and I won’t. But I’m still going to share a few quick thoughts.
- Beat Saber: Fast and lightweight, like its PC counterpart. No custom mods yet, but the gaming community has already worked out the ability to add custom songs. It’s an easy purchase at $30 if you enjoy electronic music (or if you’re comfortable adding custom songs, any genre) and playing rhythm-style games. Every bit as good as its PC version.
- Vader Immortal: At $10, a must-buy experience. Probably the best looking of the Quest games at launch. Meeting Vader “in person” is a thrill, especially if you’re near average height, because you’ll see how big he is. The first time you hold a light saber is a special treat.
- Robo Recall: The most clear-cut example of graphical concessions compared to its stunning PC version, but the core gameplay is even more fun, because you don’t have to worry about tangling up cords. Make sure your guardian area is set safely and cut loose. Another great Day One buy.
- Big Screen: To me, one of the Killer Apps for Quest. Set up a public or private room and sit around with other people in VR. Draw together. Talk to them with your real voice, hear theirs, and gather around a screen to watch whatever the host is sharing. The sense of PRESENCE from the little goofy digital avatar is astonishing. When Heather’s cute little digital self laughed with her voice, in my head, it WAS Heather next to me. I can’t wait to use this app more to watch a movie with friends and family.
People have been saying that VR is ready to go mainstream for years. The Quest is the first device that can really deliver on it. It’s hard to explain just how liberating being untethered is. You can go to the back patio, you can take it on a trip, or you can hole up in a closet and watch a movie. At this price point ($399 all included, then more for games), with no other consoles coming out this year, are we looking at the must-have for Christmas and Black Friday? I think we might be.
The one big area where the Quest doesn’t excel is in sharing the experience with others. Casting from the Quest to a TV doesn’t always work, and when it does, it’s often several seconds behind reality or missing audio. It needs to work as well as the rest of the experience so that you can take it to a group of friends and everyone who’s not using the headset can share the experience with the person who’s strapped in.
While the Quest can be used to somewhat tether to a PC to increase its horsepower, it should be done in a built-in way, through the Oculus software, with official support. That only gives PC users more incentive to pick up a Quest, when they might be sitting on the fence, wondering if they want to give up their full experience for a mobile one.
Too Long, Didn’t Read
We live in the future, and the future is goddamn amazing. If you have the money for a Quest, buy it. If you don’t, start saving or make friends with someone who has one. You won’t regret it.
Will the Quest keep me charmed long term? I can’t wait to see. I’ll post the one-month follow up to this article around the end of June.