We get hands-on with the latest VR headset from Oculus and find out whether six degrees of freedom is enough to justify a decent slab of cash.
Oh no, not another virtual reality headset to consign to the scrapheap of techno-faddery. Just one moment my two-dimensional friend. This here is the Oculus Quest, the new VR headset from the people that brought you the original Oculus Rift and the less-exciting Oculus Go.
Pft, whatever, VR is so lame. Yeah, you might have a bit of a point there. Not too long ago we thought we’d be living our best lives through virtual reality by now. Not really worked out that way, has it… But, that’s where the Oculus Quest comes in.
And how, pray tell? Well thus far the VR headsets that are any good are expensive and unwieldy, hogging your spare room and demanding powerful gaming computers. On the thriftier end of the spectrum, you basically have to strap on a pair of glorified goggles with your smartphone slotted over your eyes, using whatever grunt your handset can muster to power your virtual experience.
The Oculus Quest is probably the first time a happy medium between cost and power has ever been met.
Hmmm, interesting. Tell me more. So, first and foremost the absolute coolest thing about the Quest is that it is completely wireless – all the tracking technology is contained within the headset itself. This is huge, as all the best VR headsets require a honking great cable strapped to the back of your head.
Also, whereas before you had to dot sensors around your room, the internal tracking on the Quest gives you the freedom to play wherever you have a space with enough room to swing a virtual cat.
Like the garden? Yes, al-fresco virtual reality is now, erm, a reality, although Oculus had to reminded me that this isn’t recommended, nor is the Quest designed for such antics.
So how does it work then? Oculus are pretty quiet about what goes on under the hood, but the four cameras dotted around the edge of the Quest give you ‘six-degrees of freedom’, so not only can you look around a virtual environment, you can also move through it.
And presumably I can do more than just ponder around a virtual art gallery… Yep. Interaction in game is done through the Oculus Touch Controllers, although since a December 2019 update you can now ditch these and just use your hands in certain apps (still in beta though, so it’s not perfect… yet. Check out the January 2020 issue of BBC Science Focus magazine for a more nuanced opinion).
To make sure you don’t bash into any walls, when you first switch on the Quest, you use the controllers to draw a virtual boundary around you, known as a ‘Guardian’.
Guardians of the (virtual) Galaxy! Ha, well inevitably when you’re wearing the headset you are in your own little universe, but more like ‘Guardians of the wedding photos on the mantlepiece’.
I created a play area that managed to skirt around the sofa, TV and various cupboards, and while you’re playing a game or absorbed in a VR experience, a superficial wall is overlaid on top of the game as visual warning when you’re approaching the edge of your play area.
The only thing that felt the full force of my flailing hand was the ceiling light shade as I attempted a smash during a particularly enthusiastic game of Racket Fury Table Tennis VR.
Sounds risky. If you’re after a more sedate experience, you can also set up a Guardian around you from a sitting position.
Speaking of comfort, is it heavy? A little, but nothing too strenuous. Given all the computing power is boxed up in front of your eyes it is a little weighty, and you can definitely feel the heat coming out of it, but I was still able to have a long, two-hour session of gaming before I had to call it quits.
Other than that, as far as VR headsets go it’s pretty comfortable. The fabric lining that covers the inside of the headset is super soft, and the adjustable strap slots snugly around your head keeping everything in place, largely avoiding the distinctive goggle marks you get around your eyes with most other VR headsets.
OK, so with breakables taped to surfaces, children/pets gently shuffled to another room, and headset snuggly strapped to my noggin, what’s it actually like to play? Specifically, will it make me vom? I was wondering how long it would take to get to that. One of the chief concerns people have with VR is that it makes them feel nauseous, which happens when there is a mismatch between what you see and what your body experiences. Any lag in the system can make you go green pretty quickly.
The good news here is that despite bobbing my head over and around objects in Shadow Point, or wafting a lightsaber around in Beat Saber, I never felt that there was any delay when moving my head. There is the inevitable wooziness you get when you move around in VR and not real life (similar to stepping onto a stopped escalator), but this is something you get used to over time.
Phew, that’s a relief. So on the matter of games…Yes, there are a few (50 at launch), and prices range from around £8 to £30. In a world of 99p apps on your smartphone, this does seem a bit spenny, but given there isn’t a huge amount to choose from you’re just going to have to suck it up.
I’ve handily picked out my three favourites below if you care to have a gander, but in general all the games are pretty decent and Oculus do have a refund policy if you just don’t fancy the look of something once you’ve downloaded it.
How does it compare to other systems? Being an all-in-one system, there are compromises. The graphics aren’t as smooth or sharp as the computer powered headsets due to the slower refresh rate and lower resolution, but when you’re immersed in VR the effect is barely noticeable. Factor in the ease of use and cost (the Oculus Rift S and a supporting PC will set you back at least £1,000), the trade-off is well worth it.
It’s also powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor, the same as the one in the two-year-old Samsung Galaxy S8, so you can’t play some of the more graphically intensive games you find on the likes of the HTC Vive or PlayStation VR, but then given everything is battery powered this is probably a good thing.
On a full charge I was able to get between two and three hours play out of the Oculus Quest, but with more demanding games (and a beefier processor) this would inevitably be much shorter. This is more than plenty for a single session.
So tell me, how much will the Oculus Quest cost? A cool £399 for the 64GB model. Given the games are quite short you probably won’t have any issues with this capacity, but if you do feel the need to have every game downloaded, you can whack a ton on top of that for the 128GB model (so £499).
Hmm, sounds like a lot. It might well be for casual gamers, but the Oculus Quest experience took me way beyond anything I’ve seen before using a smartphone and, as I’ve mentioned before, is waaaay cheaper than a separate VR headset and gaming computer setup.