The Oculus Quest is virtual reality’s next big leap forward

The Oculus Quest is the most innovative virtual reality headset since the arrival of the original Oculus Rift and HTC Vive.

The benefits of Oculus’ new hardware, which is out May 21, don’t come from enhanced resolution or a lighter weight, but from the ease of use and lack of setup. The external sensors are gone completely, and the unit is self-contained — no PC required — but the Quest still offers the same tracking abilities as the Oculus Rift. That means the controllers offer six degrees of freedom to manipulate objects in virtual reality, but you don’t need to go through any extensive setup or use any external sensors at all to enjoy room-scale VR. You can use the hardware in any room after going through a setup process that takes around 10 seconds to complete.

It’s a game changer, in other words: portable, self-contained VR for $399 for the 64 GB option or $499 for the 128 GB option, and both versions come with the headset and two controllers.

So what’s going on, and why is the Quest such a big jump from existing VR devices? Let’s start by looking at the headset and controllers.

The Oculus Quest with the two included controllers, charging cable, and spacer to make it easier to play with glasses.

The hardware

The Oculus Quest looks similar to a standard Oculus Rift, despite its four built-in sensors and the fabric around the outside of the hardware. The straps make it easy to put on or take off, even with glasses, although things may look blurry if you don’t have it adjusted so your eyes hit the sweet spot that allows you to see everything clearly. Putting the Quest on and adjusting the straps to be comfortable and give you the best view takes a bit of practice, but you can do it in a few seconds once you get a feel for it.

The two included controllers look and feel very close to the original Oculus Touch controllers, which is to say that they’re comfortable and easy to use. The biggest change is the addition of another button below the trigger that allows you to squeeze the controller to make an in-game fist — or whatever the developer would like to use the interaction for.

The headset is around 100 grams heavier than the original Oculus Rift, but the weight didn’t bother me once I had the straps adjusted properly. You can use the built-in speakers for audio if you’d like, but I prefer to connect headphones for a bit more immersion.

The 72 Hz OLED panel offers a resolution of 1440×1600 per eye, which gives you a strong, clear image. The whole thing is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 system on a chip, and the Quest will give you around two hours of play time for graphically intensive games or closer to three hours of play time if you’re just watching media. The hardware takes two hours to charge using the included USB-C charging cable.

How the Quest tracks your movement and playing space

The Oculus Rift required the use of two external sensors for standing VR, and three external sensors for room-scale VR. The sensors had to be placed on a solid surface or mounted to your wall, and each one had to be connected to your PC with a USB cable. Initial setup and calibration was a pain in the ass, the sensors took up space and connections on your PC, and moving the whole thing to another room or over to a friend’s house meant that you had to do it all again before you could start playing.

The Quest, on the other hand, uses four sensors that are built into the headset to see your playing space and track the controllers. The hardware senses the floor automatically, and setting up your play space only requires you to look through the passthrough cameras and trace an outline of your usable play space on the floor, using the controller like a laser pointer.

One of the Quest’s built-in sensors

The system will remember and recognize multiple rooms, so if you walk into the bedroom from the living room and have a play space set up for both, the hardware will remember and respond appropriately. That’s a nice touch, but creating a new playing area just requires that initial trace, which only takes a second or two. Moving to new rooms or taking the hardware to another environment entirely is now trivial.

I have been testing the hardware in my own home with a variety of launch software for over a week, and have yet to see any issues with the tracking. I was able to play Beat Saber and Space Pirate Trainer without feeling any lag or noticing any loss of precision in my movements.

Using hardware with full motion tracking for the headset and controllers without a cable attaching it to a PC feels wonderful; it’s so much easier to get lost in a game when I don’t have to worry about twisting the cable around myself or tripping over it. I can spin, duck, walk around inside VR, and even jump up and down without issue. Room-scale VR requires a minimum of 2×2 meters of free space, but the Quest also supports regular standing or sitting options if you don’t have a free VR room.

You don’t have to worry about slamming into a wall as you’re playing, either. The Guardian system will show a wireframe grid when you get too close to the edges of your playing space to keep you from wandering into a wall, and the virtual world will even fade away. If you step completely outside of the limits of your play space, you can see the real world, and you can tell where you are.

Being able to play games like Superhot VR or I Expect You to Die without worrying about the cable makes the entire experience much more enjoyable and less of a worry. The upcoming Rift S will be able to offer more visually impressive games since it’s powered by your gaming PC instead of its own self-contained internals, but the lack of wires of any kind when using the Quest may make it a better pick for many people, especially if you don’t happen to already have a fast gaming PC.

And speaking of processing power …

Is this system really powerful enough for VR?

A self-contained VR system that relies on the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 chip — the same hardware that powers the Pixel 2 smartphone — seems like it would be underpowered, especially when you consider how much computing power the tracking software must take up before you even get to the image. But somehow it all works.

The Quest has its own game library outside of the Rift, but right now the announced list of games feels like a best-of collection from the Rift’s best games. I noticed a slight visual downgrade from what I was used to playing these games on the Rift that my gaming PC powers, but I was never distracted by a lack of visual fidelity. Low-latency tracking and a good screen are much more important than pure graphical power when it comes to immersion in VR, and the Oculus Quest delivers enough of the good stuff that the visual trade-off felt worthwhile.

It helps that most of the best VR games that are currently on the market rely on stylized visuals and strong design more than high-resolution textures or general visual whiz-bangery to make their point, but prospective buyers should still know that not every game coming to the Rift will also come to the Quest.

Beat Saber features simple graphics, but the effect is still mesmerizing in the Quest

The good news is that Oculus seems committed to cross-buy support: If you’d like to play any game that works on both the Rift and the Quest on both pieces of hardware, you won’t have to purchase it twice. If you have a copy of Robo Recall for your Rift already, you’ll be able to download the game on your Quest for free if you decide to upgrade into that platform. It’s a nice touch that helps bring value to the software ecosystem.

There is one big feature that the Quest lacks, however.

Being social in VR

Most existing VR platforms, from the PSVR to the Rift and Vive, output the image from the headset to a television or computer monitor so everyone in a room can see what the player sees. Knowing what the player is doing, and how well they’re doing it, goes a long way to make VR a social activity as you take turns playing and watching. Pulling off something really difficult or impressive in VR is a lot less enjoyable when no one can see what you’re doing.

And that’s an issue with the Quest at launch. You can send a live feed from the headset to the phone that’s running the Oculus app, but it’s not like it’s easy to crowd around a phone. Also be aware that you’ll need a smartphone with the Oculus app to setup the headset the first time, and you can browse and buy games through the phone’s interface to be downloaded on the Quest.

The Quest supports streaming to a display using an Nvidia Shield, Chromecast Ultra, or Chromecast Generation 3 devices, but not everyone has one of those or wants to spend money on extra hardware after buying a $399 VR headset.

Hopefully sharing the Quest’s image gets easier as the software is built out.

VR keeps getting better

Portable VR used to mean getting rid of full 3D tracking for your head and controllers, but the Quest solves that problem. VR in general used to mean fiddling with multiple sensors that had to be plugged into your PC, in the case of the Rift, or wall sockets for power for the Vive. The Quest solves that problem as well.

And the result is a system that does everything it needs to do to provide a full VR experience without the player needing to place any sensors or perform a lengthy calibration for their playing space. You just put on the Quest, trace your playing area, and go. The rest takes care of itself.

All the wires and setup of traditional VR weren’t an issue when I first started using the hardware, because at first it’s so cool to have functional, high-quality VR at all. But once the shine wears off and you’re stuck managing cables or fiddling with sensors, it’s easier to just go watch a movie than it is to play a game in VR. The Quest means that suddenly playing a game in VR is just as easy as most of your other entertainment options, and that’s a jump that consumer-level VR needed to take if it wants to find mainstream acceptance.

The system could be a bit lighter and the internals could be a bit more powerful, but the breakthrough has occurred. Portable, easy to use and full-featured VR is here, and for now Oculus doesn’t have any competition in that particular market.

After using the Quest for the past week, my only note to companies like HTC and Lenovo is a simple one: Catch up.

The Oculus Quest hardware final “retail” was reviewed with a unit provided by Facebook You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.


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