When Oculus Quest hit back in May, it was a big question mark, but some new features coming in the next year are turning the cords-free headset into a must-buy. The Quest cut the cord on virtual reality, but with some notable compromises. Oculus Link takes the Quest closer to its high-end siblings. Hand tracking and new passthrough tech, meanwhile, bring the Quest closer and closer to that Holodeck-like fantasy of VR that so many of us have been entertaining in our minds since Oculus Rift hit Kickstarter (or since Lawnmower Man hit theaters, if you’re old).
Before I get into what I mean, I want to say that no, the Quest isn’t perfect and yes, it still makes some compromises when compared to “premium” VR experiences like the Valve Index.
The trouble with VR
Virtual reality has always had a few problems: Buy-in, Setup, and Space. Buy-in is the first problem. To get a “true” VR experience before the Quest, the least expensive way to get into VR was the PlayStation VR, which runs somewhere around $700 – $800 for a new from-scratch setup. The cost climbs quickly from there with the introduction of building or upgrading a PC to make it VR-ready.
Setup is the second. The PlayStation, again, was the easiest one to get up and running. The HTC Vive offered arguably the best experience but required an incredible amount of setup thanks to its Lighthouse technology. And that’s ignoring all the configuration that happens inside games.
Space is the third. Again, PlayStation won this one, while Valve and HTC basically expected anyone who might buy a Vive to have a room just for VR. I know people who have or had rooms for VR or had complicated setups to make transforming a room more reasonable. Even the best setups, though, are permanently tethered to a base station, and the optimal version of this I’ve seen had the user running their headset cord along the ceiling. It’s imperfect, for sure, and a configuration better suited to arcades than homes.
Oculus Quest joins the fight
That’s where the Quest comes in. At just $400, the quest nearly halves the price of the cheapest buy-in. Setup involves using the passthrough camera and wands to trace out the bounds of your room. The minimum space for many games is just three square feet, and the lack of wire for Oculus Quest-specific games means that you can hop into VR anywhere you feel confident you’re not going to get a suitcase wedgie for doing so.
The compromise is that just doesn’t look as good as those premium VR headsets. And how could it? There’s a reason that the highest-quality VR experiences involve being wired into a high-end gaming PC. This stuff is complex, and making it look really good requires powerful hardware. The Quest offers acceptable visuals on portable gear.
But it seems that with a few changes announced last week, the Quest is both going to allow us to get the best of both worlds and maybe even put the wands away.
The Oculus Link is a cable that connects your Oculus Quest to a PC, allowing you to play full-sized Oculus Rift games on the headset.
“Your Quest is basically a Rift, now, too,” said Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg at the Oculus Connect keynote. Oculus Link connects through “most high-quality USB 3 [Type-C] cables” according to Oculus, though the company also plans to release a $79 5-meter fiber-optic cable for best throughput. The purpose behind building its own cable, Oculus says, is to have a longer, lighter-weight cable that has additional quality-assurance on top of it, but this cable is not a requirement. $79 is a hard pill to swallow, and it’s easy to dismiss it as Monster Cable-style snake oil, but time will tell whether or not that cable offers any real benefits over a standard USB Type-C cable.
Hands-on experiences say that this really does work. The latency is imperceptible to most of the members of the press who have reported on it, and the visuals are noticeably better as you would expect. Again, a compromise had to be made here. There’s an encoding layer between the headset and the game, and the outer edges where your eyes are unlikely to be looking will be less detailed. That could be an issue for some games that make extensive use of heads-up display information, but it seems like most games will be very playable through this.
This seems like a great compromise that allows both the “magical holodeck” experience of Oculus Quest and the premium “amusement park ride” feel of higher-quality VR, and it also gives people who need the cheaper buy-in of Quest a pathway to get into those big VR games. The more people that play VR, the better off the VR community is as a whole.
While the Oculus Link feature is the headliner for hardware enthusiasts like us, other new features coming to the Oculus Quest could prove to be literal game changers. The newest controller for the Oculus Quest is… your hands. Just your hands. Oculus is adding hand-tracking functionality. This functionality could improve in the next-generation version of the Quest, and it could even come to the Rift S. Oculus didn’t mention anything about the Rift S and hand-tracking, though, so we’d only be guessing. This is likely a feature we’ll see improving in leaps and bounds over the net year or two, but it’s a big step forward.
Oculus is also bringing a Rift S feature called Passthrough+ to the Quest. Passthrough+ provides a stereo-correct, real-time view of their surroundings. That means that glass-topped table is exactly where you think is. The isolation and vulnerability of putting on a headset are both big barriers to entry, and this should ease that. Passthrough+, coupled with hand tracking, also seems to open the way for true augmented-reality gaming on a more accessible headset than the Magic Leap or HoloLens.
Finally, the Quest will also add Oculus Go apps and will soon allow you to turn off all the fancy space tracking technology in case you want to watch a movie.
These new features are huge
In case it’s still not clear, these new features are huge steps forward that all work toward solving some of the biggest headaches in VR. While the Rift S, HTC Vive, and Valve Index will still offer more premium visuals, the Quest is turning into the best way to experience VR, and it might be the first must-buy VR experience.