If all the hype about virtual reality were true, you’d be reading this column through VR goggles.
But in actual reality, tech’s next big thing has been stuck as tech’s niche market thing. When VR for homes arrived two years ago, it required strapping on a $600 face computer with a cable slithering down your back into another, even more expensive computer. Or you needed a special phone slipped inside funny headgear. The tech got in the way of non-gamers even trying VR.
Now VR’s getting another shot called the Oculus Go. This new headset, which goes on sale Tuesday, is the product Facebook’s Oculus division should have sold the first time around. After testing one for a week, the Oculus Go is the first VR gadget I actually want to buy.
It costs just $200. It has no cables. It’s easy to use. It works for iPhone people and Android people, Mac people and PC people.
And it’s for more than just playing games. Call it Oculus and chill: The Go lets you curl up and watch TV virtually along with a faraway friend. Or on a long flight, you can use one as your private movie theater. Noise-cancelling headphones, meet the annoying-seatmate canceling headset.
The Oculus Rift was the 2016 gadget you hoped your neighbor bought so you could try it out. The Oculus Go is the 2018 gadget you buy as a gift.
The Oculus Go doesn’t solve all the problems facing VR. You can teleport to new places, but you won’t forget you’re actually wearing goggles. And aficionados will be disappointed that the Oculus Go, in an effort to trim its price and bulk, offers less-sophisticated VR experiences than its predecessors.
Yet the Oculus Go addresses what I think is a bigger issue: It’s accessible to people who aren’t super rich or super into video games and computers. And VR will become better when more than just geeks get involved.
No strings attached — except the Facebook one
What makes the Oculus Go a breakthrough is that it’s self-contained. The Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, which debuted in 2016, are tethered to high-end PCs. Sony’s PlayStation VR plugs into a PlayStation. The less-expensive Samsung Gear VR and Google Daydream View require specific-model Android phones. (That, in particular, had left iPhone people out of the fun.)
Think of the Oculus Go as oversize ski goggles, blacked out with paint. Inside, LCD screens shine images onto lenses designed for close-up viewing. (You can still wear glasses inside, or even order prescription lenses to screw into the headset.) Setup takes 5 minutes via a smartphone. After that, the Oculus Go gets everything it needs directly over WiFi.
You operate the Oculus Go with a remote control that acts like a virtual laser pointer. You have to use it by touch alone but it’s pretty intuitive. Most of my volunteer testers figured it out with minimal instruction. A pair of 7-year-olds I gave it to needed no help at all.
If you’ve tried another VR headset, the Oculus Go offers some subtle design improvements. You can remove its top strap if it’s messing with your hair. It is lined with soft fabric in the places where it touches your face. I wouldn’t call the 1-pound headset extremely comfortable, but it’s better than others. One time I did inadvertently take a nap wearing it. (I woke to find goggle lines on my face.)
The Oculus Go’s speakers are built into a part of the strap that hovers near your ears, but doesn’t cover them, creating a cool surround-sound effect. (Or you can plug in headphones.) The quality of what you see inside, too, is modestly better. New screen technology with physically larger pixels makes it feel less like you’re looking at the world through a screen door. It’s immersive, so intense apps that make you feel like you’re moving might leave you reaching for the Dramamine.
What Oculus gave up to reach the Go’s low price and portability is the whiz-bang tech that can make VR feel much more immersive. That means you have to use the Go in a swivel chair or by standing in one place — you can’t walk around things to get a different view. It offers experiences very similar to the Samsung Gear VR, and many of the same apps run on both. (Oculus is working on a self-contained product you can move around in while wearing, but it’s still in the lab.)
There is room for improvement. You’re effectively blindfolded once you put it on, which can be disorienting. A camera on the outside might help warn you if you’re going to hit into a wall or, say, your brother is playing a prank on you. And using the Oculus Go would be a more social experience if the people around you could also experience some of what you’re seeing. More expensive VR equipment can mirror what’s happening inside to a nearby TV.
And then there’s the Facebook problem. The parent company of Oculus doesn’t have the most stellar reputation for protecting our privacy and data. It says Oculus does not share people’s data with the social network for third-party advertising. But Facebook is letting apps track our movements, literally, in multiple new dimensions. And there will be temptations to use that info for advertising, surveillance — and ways we haven’t even yet imagined.
Here’s what you do with it
So now that VR costs less than an iPad, what’s it good for? The Oculus Go has more answers to that question than when VR first arrived. What will stick — and with what sorts of people — are still open questions.
You can, of course, use it for gaming. Even though the Oculus Go’s technology is limited to mostly seated experiences, there’s still a remarkable amount of physical fun. You tilt and rotate your head to pilot a spaceship around debris and shoot bad guys with a game called Anshar. My 7-year-old helpers particularly enjoyed a game called Coaster Combat, which simulates the rush of a roller coaster as you collect points by zapping targets with the remote. (Officially, the Oculus Go is for ages 13 and up, to protect children from potentially inappropriate online social activity, the company says.)
But I was most surprised by all the ways to use the Oculus Go just to chill out. Oculus execs say they heard from customers that sometimes they just wanted to escape from family, roommates or whatever. You can stream regular old Netflix, Hulu and YouTube. (In case you were wondering, Oculus doesn’t sell pornography apps in its store.)
When you play a movie, inside the Oculus Go it looks like you’re in a theater or a groovy loft apartment. You can also buy Hollywood movies from Oculus or even download your own videos to watch on a flight — perhaps the most brilliant use for a VR headset I’ve seen yet.
The battery lasts for more than 2 hours of movie playing, and about an hour and a half of playing games. That’s not long enough for a cross-country flight without a recharge, but you’d probably want to give your eyes a break anyway.
The most fun is watching what kinds of only-in-VR experiences people are dreaming up. There’s a growing catalogue of video shot as look-around, 360-degree experiences. A new app designed for the Oculus Go called MelodyVR lets you hop around the stage during rock concerts. An app called NextVR puts you in the corner of the ring during WWE wrestling matches. Even the producers of Bravo’s “Vanderpump Rules” announced they would begin filming with 360-degree cameras. (Warning: VR can induce nausea.)
VR doesn’t have to be an anti-social experience, either. An app called Oculus Rooms lets you and friends watch movies and TV shows and play simple games in a private “party” mode that I couldn’t resist calling “Oculus and chill.”
In this virtual romper room, you are represented by a virtual avatar of your own choosing, but you can chitchat in your own voice. You can also bring the party into third-party games and TV streaming apps, including Hulu. I caught up on my shows with a friend on a virtual couch.
Who knows which of these ideas will stick, but with the Oculus Go, the tech is finally starting to get out of the way.
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