Since its nascency, the tech world’s forays into virtual reality have provided novelty — a new media experience that, even in its simplest forms, captivated through uniqueness. Three-dimensional immersion bathed the user’s senses in the world or experience the VR creators intended … until reality crept, or occasionally slammed, back into the picture, with tangled wires, awkward interfaces and sheer spatial limitations shattering the illusion of even the most carefully crafted virtual worlds. It was a different gaming experience, but, compared to the sleek, complex, smooth-running HD games presented by Nintendo, Xbox and PlayStation, was it better? As soon as a player encountered any number of compromises or encumbrances, the answer was decidedly no.
In 2019 the Oculus Quest debuted the most unencumbered, and thereby best VR experience to date. With only a smartphone, a wireless headset and ergonomic controllers that sat perfectly in the palm of your hand, the Quest may not have been the most powerful VR tech on the market, with neither the sharpest graphics nor the crispest audio, but it was easily the most immersive and affordable. A little over a year later, the Quest is entering a second generation, one in which the Quest 2 (available Oct. 13) takes another bounding step toward realizing the high fidelity, fully immersive, no-strings-attached virtual reality experience we’ve always imagined. And, shockingly, it does so for $100 less than its predecessor.
To be clear, the Quest 2 is not the most potent VR product out there. That honor likely remains with Valve Index. But that honor also comes with a price tag of $749 for the headset and controllers, and still requires a computer with 8-plus gigabytes of ram, a Dual Core processor and a respectable graphics card that would run you a few hundred bucks by itself if you needed to upgrade. On the other hand, if you have a smartphone with Apple iOS 10 or later, or Android 5.0 or later, all you need to purchase is the Quest 2, which will retail for as low as $299.
Nearly every critical stat for the Quest 2 exceeds the Quest 1. The one that stays the same — a storage space of 64 gigabytes for the lower-end unit — will also come with a $100 price reduction. The 64 GB Oculus 1, retailed for $399, which will be the price of the Quest 2′s 256 GB version. The improvements are notable. The new set upgrades the processor to the Qualcomm Snapdragon XR2 Platform and ups the RAM from 4 to 6 gigabytes. The resolution in turn jumps from 1440 × 1600 per eye to 1832 x 1920, and moreover, Oculus promises support for 90 frames per second for future titles, faster than most competitive gaming titles on current generation console platforms.
The average consumers won’t pay much attention to the specs though. What they’ll likely care about is what I cared about: Does the Quest 2 deliver a unique experience that sets it apart, not only from its VR peers, but from PC and console gaming? In a number of areas, the answer is a resounding yes. In others, it’s clear that even the best VR experience to date has plenty of work to do before it can supplant a PC and console gaming platform.
That said, those same gaming platforms can’t (at least yet) deliver untethered, immersive experience like the one I had playing the upcoming “POPULATION: ONE” on the Quest 2, which allows for backward compatibility with all Oculus Quest games to date, like “Vader Immortal,” “The Walking Dead: Saints and Sinners” and “Creed.” I wasn’t sitting, mashing buttons and frantically manipulating thumbsticks. I was running for my life in a futuristic battle royale. In the older titles I was using the Force, wielding a lightsaber, slaying zombies, fighting Ivan Drago.
Of those, “POPULATION: ONE” truly showed the potential of where VR could go in the years ahead because it further removes the guardrails of the gaming experience. Even many of the best VR games provide forced paths in order to limit your freedom (and the necessary programming work). Yes, you can climb in many games, but only up a predefined ladder or pipe. You can explore, but only along a predetermined path. “POPULATION: ONE’s” world is a little more open. Much like “Fortnite” you drop into a defined territory, loot, shoot, build and survive to be the last team standing. But instead of “Fortnite’s” third-person perspective where a button press/hold triggers all your actions, you’re surrounded by the world and using your hands to grab items, reload weapons (don’t forget to close the breech after sliding in your shotgun shells), prep consumables (you’ll need to pop the top of a soda can before slurping down the health booster) and climb objects. And you can literally climb anything. See a tree? Walk up to it, close your fists and put one hand over the other — up you go. That massive multistory tower in the middle of the map? Hope you’ve been doing your cardio, but you can ascend that as well. Need to get down fast? Drop off the edge and extend your arms like you’re operating a squirrel suit to glide to the ground.
There’s so much to do and see that you can lose yourself in the experience. And that’s the point of virtual reality.
What “POPULATION: ONE” provides is a teaser for what’s possible with upcoming VR titles — like the just-announced, open-world “Assassin’s Creed” — that isn’t present in most current offerings. To date, VR is often achievable at the cost of one or more enjoyable game components, be it high-end graphics, rich storytelling or just sheer length of the experience. “Vader Immortal” features a great story about Star Wars’s most infamous villain, but is broken into chapters that last only about 20-30 minutes. It’s the difference between taking part in a really cool activity at a theme park and starring in your own action adventure film. The latter is the ultimate goal of VR, and we’re not there yet.
Part of that, however is a business function. Big-time game publishers aren’t always willing to chase the VR market when its consumer base is so small — in part because of the expense of VR equipment, combined with its unwieldiness. That’s where the potential for the Quest 2 comes in, lowering the barriers to entry both in terms of price and comfort. You’re not going to sink tens of millions into AAA game development for a potential audience of only a couple million people. But if that number creeps closer to, say, the number of worldwide console users (sales for the current generation consoles for Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft exceed 200 million units), that may start to change. Should VR development receive AAA levels of investment on a similar scale as consoles, that is a thrilling possibility. And you can see how the Quest 2 could help accomplish that.
An easy-to-use, lightweight and low-cost combo has the potential to attract a new segment of users, people like, say, my mother, who tried the Quest 1 last spring and has been badgering me to buy her a VR set for her birthday/Christmas ever since. My mother loves the beach, but following the start of quarantine protocols in March, she’s been stuck at home more often than not. The Quest is easy enough for her to use from her living room and features apps like “Wander” that can take her pretty much anywhere in the world, whenever she wants. I typed in an address and found myself standing outside my childhood home. (To its current occupants: You’ve done a lovely job with the flower plantings at the top of the hill.)
Puzzle games are also more fun in VR, and soon the Oculus’s offerings will be joined by classic graphic puzzler “Myst.” Simple can be spectacular too, particularly when presented in virtual reality.
The VR experience presented by the Quest 2 isn’t without issues. And one in particular gave me pause: To use the Oculus, you need to have/link to a Facebook account. Given Facebook’s user privacy problems, granting access to a device with video cameras and microphones inside my home isn’t a choice I or others will make lightly. A Facebook spokesperson maintained that when it comes to the device’s cameras, “raw images are overwritten instantaneously locally on your device.” Still, questions around privacy can make for an unsettling experience.
For example, when I downloaded one app, a permission screen popped up asking: “Allow ‘Onward’ [the game] to access photos, media and files on your device?” Given that the Oculus runs in conjunction with my smartphone, “files and media” covers a lot of unspecific ground. (I also wondered if that question referred to my phone or the headset, which stores the apps/games. The spokesperson confirmed that it’s the headset: “Developers do not have access to the Oculus app or users’ phones,” she said). After that screen came a second asking for permission to “record audio.” Given Facebook’s track record, these questions are not going to be small asks for some potential users.
The spokesperson for Facebook outlined a few of the benefits for the mandatory linking of your profile, noting improved social networking on the Oculus, the ability to post your Oculus highlights and images to your Facebook page — and that you’ll be served ads tailored to your user habits. The latter could be seen as a benefit to some consumers, but those concerned with privacy and data tracking may not see it in the same light.
The Quest 2 also has some of the usual issues and constraints for VR. Apps and games running off your smartphone aren’t as stunning as those running on high-end PCs, a trade off for accessibility and price, of course. (And using the Oculus Link, you can plug in your Quest to access any apps made for the more high-powered, PC-required Oculus Rift.) The battery lasts only between 2-3 hours, though that’s likely fine given VR’s disorienting effects. I’m not particularly prone to motion sickness (and a number of apps offer mechanics to aid those sensitive to such effects) but even still, I couldn’t last longer than an hour without feeling a little woozy.
Hand-tracking is an insanely cool advancement from the past year, which allows you to ditch the controllers entirely and just use your actual fingers. The problem there is that few apps allow for it and the “pinch to select” action doesn’t register consistently. The potential to eventually ditch required real-world equipment remains promising, however.
Then there’s the cleaning question: Moving around, particularly with the fitness and boxing apps, worked up a good amount of head sweat that soaked into the cloth liner around my eyes and the canvas straps around my head. It dried over time, but I’m pretty sure that could get a little crusty, and it’s not as though you can toss it in the washing machine. The Oculus makers touted a wipe-able version of the Quest 2, with a non-cloth covering around the eyes, but I wonder if it’s as comfortable.
On the whole, the Quest 2 remains a truly remarkable piece of technology. It’s not yet a question of whether Oculus or another VR platform is a worthy replacement or competitor for a console or PC for gamers. The volume of amazing game titles for standard platforms, coupled with the equally impressive and simultaneous strides of console/PC manufacturers make any VR experience, at best, a complementary option for dedicated gamers. But in 2019, for the first time, you could see a real possibility that someday VR could become the predominant platform. In 2020, with the Quest 2, there appear to be even fewer impediments to that potential future.
At its peak, a strong VR experience is one of the most satisfying forms of entertainment attainable with modern technology. With the Quest 2, it’s more accessible than ever. The barrier to a great VR experience has never been lower. The timing, with the world still pushed indoors enduring a pandemic, has never been better. It will be interesting to see how the Quest 2′s ties to Facebook, which consumers may treat as another kind of cost, affect what is an otherwise amazing device.