The Upgrade

Oculus Quest Is VR for Normal People

The $399 headset is worth the splurge

I’m in a cage of my own making. I drew the boundaries, and now a glowing aqua ring surrounds me and rises into infinity.

This virtual cage — or “Guardian” — is part of the Oculus Quest’s new boundary system. It’s designed to keep me from walking into walls and furniture while I explore new worlds with Facebook’s standalone virtual reality headset, which is out next month and costs $399.

The Quest is a standalone Oculus, meaning it requires no external tracking system for positional awareness of your head, hands, and body. It’s more powerful than the Oculus Go ($199) and comes with a pair of Oculus Touch controllers, just like those you’d use with a full Oculus Rift setup.

Oculus Quest definitely raises the bar.

The Quest launches alongside a new Rift S system, also $399, but like previous virtual reality setups, it requires a reasonably powerful PC to run. While the Quest is a step below the Rift S in terms of image and content quality, it’s clearly a next-level VR experience compared to previous standalone headsets. It could go a long way toward converting skeptics who haven’t had the opportunity to try “full” VR with motion controls. If you’re looking for a new gadget to splurge on, this may be it.

Going virtual

Oculus continues to refine the overall consumer VR experience, and nowhere is this more evident than in the Oculus Quest setup. You’ll need to use an iPhone or Android app for initial setup, which includes account creation (or, if you prefer, logging in with Facebook) and guiding the system to use a Wi-Fi network. It’s a pretty quick process, save for a required firmware update that occurred shortly after connecting the Oculus Quest to the internet.

This gave me time to get acquainted with the new hardware. The Quest is not an upgrade of the Go. It is a completely different device. It features a dark gray, mostly plastic body with rubber straps that include adjustable Velcro straps. On the front of the headset are four strategically spaced, ultra-wide sensors that work with Oculus’ Insight Tracking System to understand your position in a room and the location of the controllers. There’s a volume rocker along the bottom edge, a power button on the side, a USB-C data and charging port on one side edge, and — yes! — a 3.5-millimeter headphone jack on another.

Inside are a pair of Fresnel lenses, which sit in front of a pair of 1440x1600 OLED screens for a combined resolution of 2880x1600. Powering the Quest system is Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835. For comparison, the Go includes the pokier Snapdragon 831 and a single LCD screen split into two images for a resolution of 2560x1440.

I peeled off the two protective labels on each lens. One warned me about shining direct sunlight into the system (I assume the Fresnel might focus sunlight on the delicate OLEDs with the same result as a magnifying focusing sunlight on an ant) and to never use liquid cleaners on the lens.

After futzing with the included eyeglass spacer, I placed the headset on my noggin. The fit was somewhat tight, so I simply adjusted the top strap to ensure that the substantial weight of the 580-gram headset was on top of my head and not pressing down on my face and nose. The Oculus app guided me to get the adjustments just right.

Making your space

Nothing transforms a VR experience like being able to move your whole body about. I learned this when I tried the somewhat cumbersome Lenovo Mirage. Oculus Go and Samsung’s Gear VR essentially require you to sit down and rotate in a seat.

Obviously, just because your system can see you and the room around you does not mean that Oculus Quest is designed for a full-home VR experience. Instead, Oculus developed an ingenious system for building a safe play space: Guardian.

When I put on the Quest headset, I could see a somewhat sketchy black-and-white view of my room. This is known as passthrough. Quest’s software then guided me to confirm that the virtual “X” marks it placed on my floor were, in fact, on the real floor. I did so by touching one AA-battery-powered controller to the ground. I then used the controller to draw a virtual line around the perimeter of my play space, ensuring that no furniture or obstacle was included in it. Oculus recommends at least a 6.5x6.5-foot space, and — this’ll be important later — I might have drawn one a little shy of that.

Inside the Oculus Quest home environment.

The Guardian space initially appears as a kind of glowing blue fence that turns red when you touch it. During game and media play, the Guardian space disappears but reappears if you cross it. My favorite part was sticking my head or hands through it, which opens a hole in the fence. If you continue on past that, the screen changes to show your real-world environment to prevent you from actually walking into something.

Oculus’ tutorial does an excellent job of acclimating newbies to all the VR metaphors for moving, pointing, grabbing, touching, throwing, and so on.

Quest can memorize up to five different Guardian spaces, so you won’t need to remap your living room every time you use the headset, provided the space is sufficiently lit: The sensors need light to work.

No, you can’t sit on that chair or check out the bookshelves.

Oculus’ tutorial does an excellent job of acclimating newbies to all the VR metaphors for moving, pointing, grabbing, touching, throwing, and so on. The tutorial guides you through interactions with a variety of virtual objects, including cubes that you can pick up and throw and rockets that you can grab with one hand and ignite with the other. There was also a character I could dance with—at one point, I “grabbed” both its hands and spun it around the virtual dance floor. All of this is fun, but it also prepares you for life in the VR world.

With the Oculus Quest situated somewhat comfortably on my head (I would feel the pressure on my brow and cheekbones after 20 minutes or so), I could look down at my virtual hands and see a perfectly rendered pair of virtual Oculus controllers. They appeared to match my movements precisely, even when I turned my hands over. In front of me was the Oculus home interface, with a main menu at waist level and a library of options in front of me. I had used my Facebook account to log into the Oculus experience and was signed into a special press preview of the Oculus store, so my content options were somewhat limited. Oculus promises 50-plus titles when the headset launches next month.

You need stereo sound to complete the virtual experience. Oculus built the speakers into the side head straps, and they’re quite effective. But you can, of course, plug headphones into the jack if you’d prefer not to bother people around you.

Game on

I tried a number of games with the Oculus Quest — and made a major mistake in one. In Sports Scramble, your hands start out as foam fingers but eventually become gloves for catching or virtual hands for swinging bats, tennis rackets, and so on. I played a number of oddball sports, but when I switched to a version of bowling, I made a rookie VR error.

There’s nothing in the Quest system to warn you if a real remote is about to hit a physical object.

In my virtual hand was a traditional bowling ball and before me was a somewhat realistic-looking lane. I swung the bowling ball back with one hand, then stepped forward, swinging my hand forward as I moved. Just as I was set to let go of the ball, my real hand struck something — hard.

My son, who was watching the whole time, explained that I’d just hit my desk. “You lunged forward,” he said, in a slightly scolding tone.

Even though I’d set up a decent-sized Guardian box, it was, at best, the bare minimum 6.5 feet wide. I swung my arm way outside that box, and there’s nothing in the Quest system to warn you if a real remote is about to hit a physical object. In fact, if there had been another Quest player in the room with me, the system has no way of knowing that (even if they’re inside my VR experience for multiplayer). I adjusted how I moved but also realized I needed to create a larger Guardian space.

I had a hoot playing Space Pirate Trainer, using two guns to shoot robots out of the sky while dodging the rays they shot back at me.

Some of my game and entertainment selections.

Creed: Rise to Glory, based on the Rocky sequel series, is one of the best and most exhausting titles. I trained and boxed a number of rounds. In general, the positioning technology worked well, though I did notice that my fighter’s feet hung off my VR body like meat bags, sometimes facing in ways that were at odds with my torso. But I loved boxing in VR, and when I knocked out one opponent, I raised my arms above my head and gazed at their virtual musculature. It felt so real — though I will never have those arms.

I learned how to fly an ultralight aircraft with Ultrawings, and it was pretty awesome — even though the graphics weren’t particularly realistic and I had a bit of trouble manipulating my virtual hands to manage the controls.

There were moments, like when I had to move forward to box or walk quickly through a virtual space, that the disconnect between my mind, which saw the movement, and my body, which was going nowhere, induced a tiny bit of vertigo-like dizziness. It never lasted long, but I felt it each time.

I also spent some time watching Fox Network’s Fox Now content on a large virtual screen. This is, naturally, a sit-down experience, so I pulled up a chair, sat in my virtual mahogany-covered room, and watched an episode of Rob Lowe’s Mental Samurai on what appeared to be a 200-inch screen. It was a good experience until the show unexpectedly crashed and wouldn’t restart.

Watch it

As I mentioned, my son, who also tried the headset and said he liked it very much, was in the room with me for much of my test drive. He wasn’t just watching me. He used the new casting technology, which will work with smartphones, as well as Chromecast (Gen 3 and above) and Nvidia Shield, to watch my VR view on an iPhone. The video quality isn’t great, and he couldn’t read any of the messages I saw on screen, but it still helped keep him involved.

Not everything was castable. Video “experiences,” like the Notre Dame drone fly-through (an especially moving experience considering recent events) didn’t show up in the cast, for example.

Quest’s image capture system would not snap an image of the Guardian fence.

You can take screenshots and videos of what you see in VR. The media is stored on the Oculus Quest’s 64GB internal storage. To retrieve media, you’ll have to connect the headset to your computer via a USB cable.

Oculus told me I could get two to three hours of battery life per change, but I never got much beyond one hour. That’s okay, because I can’t see myself wearing the Quest for longer than that. Even with all the cushioning and perfect strap position, it started to hurt my face.

Having tried a few untethered VR headsets, Oculus Quest definitely raises the bar for the experience. It has a better design and play-space control system than the Lenovo Mirage, and the image quality is much better than on the Google Daydream and the Oculus Go.

At $399, the Quest is more of an investment than the Go, and it might not be for someone who doesn’t see themselves using VR more than weekly or monthly. But for those looking to take gaming and content consumption to a new 3D level, this is a fantastic choice.

As mentioned, hardcore gamers might prefer the new Oculus Rift S. Like the Quest, it’s a room-, body-, and hand-tracking headset that costs $399. The Rift S requires a PC, which you tether to via USB and HDMI cables. It’s a more powerful headset that supports console-level gaming. I played with it for a bit and found it very impressive.

Still, I like my VR untethered and on a measured basis, which is why the Oculus Quest is right for me. If you’ve been curious about VR but don’t want to commit to a more complicated setup, there’s a good chance this will be up your alley, too.

Tech expert, journalist, social media commentator, amateur cartoonist and robotics fan.

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