The newly released Oculus quest marks a new dawn in VR entertainment aimed at a mainstream audience but also appealing to VR vets. Whilst its older sibling the Oculus GO (released in May 2018) offered a standalone device at a competitive price (£199), its lack of motion controls and movement within the VR space made it more suitable as a media viewer with a window into the possibilities of what VR offers. One year on and the Quest certainly fills the void although comes in at double the price of the Oculus GO. However, the differences between the two devices couldn’t be further apart despite initial appearances. The question that needs asking then, is the Quest worth the investment right now?
To toss in some perspective here, VR isn’t a cheap hobby and even prior to the Oculus GO, the entry level (excluding cardboard devices) rested firmly with the Samsung Gear VR which in itself required a smartphone to work. It’s likely to this day the Gear VR rests as the number-one selling VR device followed closely by Sony’s Playstation VR which requires a PS4 or PS4 Pro to work. PC VR requires an up-to-spec PC to get things running, which means when you factor in this cost against the price of the headset (Oculus Rift S released at £399 recently) the price of entry is high. The cost of hardware doesn’t come as a cheap investment not including the additional cost of the software. £400 for the Quest then doesn’t seem too steep in comparison except obviously the Playstation VR/PS4 combo offers a wider breadth of entertainment options such as playing 2D games on a TV.
What do you get then for your investment in Quest? Well, the biggest selling point aside from its standalone status is its ease of setup and wire-free use. Sadly, Oculus requires a smartphone app to set-up the Quest initially but once completed, users are good to go. A word of warning though, older versions of Android won’t work, so if your smartphone is old like our Galaxy S4 then you’re out of luck (The App requires iOS 10 or higher/ Android 6.0 Marshmallow or higher). Frankly this is an awful decision and a massive bone of contention for many. A standalone device should be just that, so Oculus’ requirement to pair with an app feels counter-intuitive at best. Not a great start then for some folks using older smartphones.
Once the phone app set-up completes then the Quest user is ready to dive into VR. A little adjustment of the straps and it fits snugly on ones head. That said, the face-foam material Oculus used here isn’t the most comfortable on the skin and depending on how tight the fit is, will leave irritating red marks embedded on your face which certainly don’t look very cool. The foam also absorbs sweat but luckily is removable and is washable – this is both a pro and a con depending on the usage. The default foam material isn’t an ideal solution in comparison with alternative fabrics. Once again, 3rd Party VR Cover comes to the rescue offering more choices with face-foam that can be wiped between users and don’t indent the skin so much. This becomes an additional cost although depending on use or head shape the default face-foam might be enough. Playing shorter experiences will mitigate these issues somewhat.
Once donning the headset, a little mechanical IPD adjustment is required but if you’re the only one using the headset then it’s something you can leave alone once calibrated. Sharing with others means it’s best to let them try the intro demo first. It’s all pretty intuitive easy-to-follow stuff.
Cleverly using its 6 degrees of freedom (6Dof) insight tracking solution which means no wires or external sensors, players set-up their guardian boundaries either in a seated or room-scale fashion (by drawing with the included controllers an area to freely move around). A singular button press for seated or standing play is an option as well and is the quickest way to get things started. It’s impressive tech and prevents players from bumping into sofas, tables and hazardous walls or expensive wall-mounted TV sets. The guardian system displays an overlay in VR which indicates your body or fist is close to a wall or object. Players learn to read the signs and pull back/move away or pay the price. Interestingly, if one steps beyond the guardian boundary, a real-time video feed of the world outside pops up in 3D and black & white which is handy for getting ones bearings,even talking to those without having to remove the headset. It’s quite possible to actually walk around using this view although not advisable depending on the layout of your home.
Once the guardian set-up and tutorials are out the way, players view the Oculus Home which acts as an interface into the games and experiences. A number of free apps and demos litter the store meaning there are things to try right out-of-the-gate without having to spend more money. The interface is pleasant, easy to navigate and allows for quick access. Oculus has refined this store for some years now and it shows. All users create an account (a good use for the phone app) and then any purchases seamlessly brought into play without having to fiddle about with payment options.
The Visual Quality
On the technical side, the Quest offers LCD panels at 1440 x 1600 per eye resolution a 72Hz refresh rate which provides a sharp image quality. Screen door effect or visible pixels remain present. You can ignored this visual artifact with a bit of mind-training or distraction via what’s happening. The 72Hz operation isn’t noticeable unless you’re conducting direct comparisons with other headsets running at 90hz such as the Oculus Rift. Some compromises in consideration to the mobile hardware are obvious in this regard. That said, when playing, the operation generally feels smooth enough. The colours present a neat vibrancy with fairly deep blacks and bright whites although no user controlled brightness setting exists which is a shame.
The lenses offer a distinct clarity including a rather pleasant large area of focus which is good for movie viewing. God rays are visible especially when looking at bright objects on dark backgrounds but is a great improvement over the Oculus Rift for example. The field of view remains quite narrow at around 100 degrees but players learn to filter the tunnel vision out by focusing on the action rather than the edges. Sure, after using devices like the Pimax 8K or 5K+ which offer around 170 degrees it’s quite the step backwards, but not something most people will pay much attention to and even seasoned vets learn to focus on what’s visible rather than what isn’t there.
The audio solution remains the same as its older sibling using the head-strap to provide spacial audio. It works well especially for those who don’t like objects placed into the ears, but it lacks depth in the lower frequencies. No user settings exist here to perhaps boost the elements which appeal to users unfortunately. It’s pretty much a one-size-fits-all solution. The alternative is to attach some earbuds or over ear headphones using one of the two 3.5mm jacks on either side of the headset. This is actually quite neat because it means if lying in bed on one’s side watching a movie, the headphone connection isn’t sticking into a pillow potentially causing damage. Either way, alternative audio solutions are widely available with varying costs depending on your preferences. Sadly at present, distortion occurs on one side when using some content which might simply be a software bug. Restarting the headset temporarily fixes this. Luckily it doesn’t happen often.
Looking at the controllers and basically they are the same as the Oculus GO pointer (slightly bigger) and housing the upward facing ring for tracking, buttons and thumbstick. They fit comfortably in one’s hand but aren’t as good a fit as the original Touch controllers especially if you have larger than average hands. They track well using the cameras built into the headset but depending on lighting conditions and other factors such as mirrors or windows can interfere with the tracking. It’s not as seamless as the two or three sensor setup of the original Oculus Rift but good enough for all intents and purposes. The battery housing has a magnetic cover but this can open depending on your grip in some games which is an annoyance.
Looking at the power for a moment and the controller batteries are standard AA (one in each) and will last a reasonable time with moderate use. The benefit here is if they do run out then replacing them is quick and easy without the need to wait for them to recharge. However, if not using rechargeable batteries then this adds more cost. The headset itself boasts around 2-3 hours of operation from a full charge but is highly dependent on the use. Browsing the internet, watching a 3D movie will use less power than a full VR game session. Luckily a fairly lengthy charging cable allows for playing whilst charging if needed. Recharge time is fairly quick but does mean taking a break for several hours.
Looking at the software it’s clear the graphics look good but are not as detailed or polished when compared to PC VR gaming. The store offers a varied mix of launch-day experiences and games although some of the pricing might appear quite high especially as some games are old and released on other platforms at a lesser cost. Luckily, a fair number of cool tutorials or demos and free content presents itself like SkyboxVR Player or Bigscreen which allow for 2D,3D and VR movie viewing (which is excellent by-the-way). Oculus provide their own media viewing which users can stream from their desktop PC/laptop or transfer directly to the Quest internal memory. Attaching to a PC also means being able to add third party apps onto your system. Those looking for adult entertainment for example can sideload the SLR App which provides an assortment of adult themed 180/360 degree VR videos (which look great by-the-way). The tech here has improved greatly over the last few years with higher quality recordings. Considering adult content remains a popular theme people look at in VR then it’s certainly looking good on the Quest thanks to the quality screens and lenses.
Social experiences such as Rec Room and VR Chat allow players to reach new heights in terms of multiplayer interaction. Then there are new gaming experiences like Vader Immortal which looks and plays very well and acts as an excellent showcase of what VR is all about using familiar assets and themes. Racket Fury provides an outlet for VR sports, turning any space into a virtual table tennis tournament. Titles such as BoxVR highlight the potential for fitness integrated into gaming like experiences. Then popular games like Beat Saber come into their own in the wire-free environment. As a launch line-up it’s a pretty good offering despite the potential for high cost of entry.
Interestingly, experienced VR players can disable the guardian and use even larger play areas including taking the Quest outside on overcast days or in low light or shaded locations. Gaming or experiences enter another level when playing outside or in larger controlled play spaces. That said, outdoor play is not an officially supported feature. Direct sunlight on the lenses will cause significant damage to the screens but with due care shouldn’t be a problem for most users wishing to experiment here. The caveat is always have a wing-man on hand to prevent any potential problems occurring. The freedom of movement playing in a larger space is a game changer for VR and the Quest is the only device that offers this out of the box and with no fiddly setting-up or additional parts.
Another cool feature is the ability to stream VR content from your PC which includes Oculus Rift or Steam VR games. Using a tool such as the freeware ALVR opens up the potential library complete with hand tracking and audio through the Quest. A good 5Ghz Internet connection is a must here as is a wired PC connection, but once up and running offers a pretty decent playing experience that certainly rivals the original Rift experience. Some visual artifacts appear and dropped frames at times, but when it’s working it’s feels like playing the game natively which is highly impressive. It’s another game-changer in terms of accessibility of content outside the Quest library (such as Google Earth VR or Minecraft). Unfortunately this isn’t officially supported at this time and rightly so as it’s not flawless yet. The future is very bright indeed if this technology becomes perfected.
Aside from niggling issues with setting-up using the phone app, face-foam comfort, battery life, the odd loss of tracking and the potential for additional costs (which seems to be a common theme with VR headsets) the Quest ticks all the right boxes and just works. The feeling of immersion and 3D depth perception feels great despite the lower quality graphics used in the games and experiences. The controllers are pleasant to hold and the Quest’s unique selling points (USP) a lack of wires, complicated set-up or high-end PC requirement to run it is a godsend for getting into the game and room-scale playing as effortlessly as possible. As an introduction to VR and an upgrade on the Oculus GO, the Quest certainly offers the better choice by quite a large margin. £200 better? Perhaps, although this is somewhat subjective. Quest at a future price point of £199 might work better for mass adoption. For now though, interested parties and those who have disposable income can look at a solid investment at the current price. Anyone looking to dip their toes into fully-fledged VR will do well to invest in Quest. Season vets will also find the freedom of wire-free gaming hard to ignore. However, the potential for streaming content and large-scale playing shows that the future of VR is already here and that is something very special indeed.