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The new Oculus headset shows how far VR has come. It's still not enough

VR Goggles
Posted at 5:10 PM, Apr 30, 2019
and last updated 2019-04-30 17:10:48-04

(CNN) -- The other day, as I stood on a beach, pulling back the pocket on a slingshot to fling fuming red birds at sneering green pigs, I thought to myself: this is fun, but I'm not sure I need to do it over and over again.

I was not actually on a beach, hurling defenseless animals at other defenseless animals. I'm not a monster. I was standing in my living room, wearing the new Oculus Quest virtual-reality headset and waving around two wireless controllers while playing Angry Birds VR: Isle of Pigs.

At its F8 developer conference on Tuesday, Facebook announced the new Quest — as well as the more powerful Oculus Rift S, which tethers to a PC — will go on sale immediately and start shipping on May 21.

The Quest is what many VR enthusiasts were probably wishing for in 2016, when the first consumer-geared virtual-reality headsets came out, such as Oculus's Rift and HTC's Vive.

Priced at $399 or $499 (depending on how much internal storage you want), the Quest isn't unique as a wireless, totally self-contained headset: Facebook already released one of those, the Oculus Go, which starts at $199, last year. But the Quest is a higher-end device, targeting gamers who may want to take the plunge into VR but don't want to be connected to a bulky computer.

The Quest is the first headset to make more-capable virtual reality affordable and portable. There's no tether to a computer or external sensors, so it's relatively simple to set up and use. It can track the position and rotation of your head, and monitors your hands via the Oculus's Touch controllers — all to help you get a sense that you're really somewhere else.

For Facebook and other companies that have spent years pushing virtual reality as the next wave of in-home entertainment, the Quest is a triumph.

In fact, with the exception of a horror-themed game that made me want to throw up (for motion reasons, not gore), I had a great time playing with the Quest. It felt silly and immersive and the graphics were impressively crisp.

However, as with nearly every other VR experience I've tried over the years, I didn't get the sense from any of the many games and experiences I tried — which ran the gamut from Angry Birds to boxing to dancing to practically feeling a woman's fingernails rhythmically tapping a microphone in an ASMR video — that this is the future that many of us want in our homes.

The headset is still too heavy, the controls not intuitive enough, and, despite the best efforts of Oculus and numerous outside developers, there's no great reason to buy this thing.

Vision hasn't materialized

Looking at the Quest headset, it's clear that virtual reality has come a long way in a relatively short amount of time. Though the technology has existed in some form or another for decades, both in research labs and in mass-market entertainment, it was Facebook's multibillion-dollar purchase of then-startup Oculus in 2014 that set the stage for the technology to go mainstream. The social network has spent the years since trying to convince consumers to buy into its vision and content makers to create games and other experiences for it.

So far, the vision hasn't materialized. While VR is alive and well in a number of places, such as arena-scale group gaming experiences such as The Void, most of us don't have a VR headset at home. Most of us don't even know anyone who does.

The numbers bear this out: according to data from tech market researcher ABI Research, 6.5 million consumer VR headsets shipped in 2018, and the market is set to grow to 10.5 million headsets shipped this year. Despite the projected growth, it's still a tiny number of VR devices when you think about it compared to, say, video game consoles, of which tens of millions are sold each year.

"I think a lot of people see value in a VR arcade, something like that, a dedicated experience. The home's a different story," said ABI Research analyst Eric Abbruzzese.

The Quest is an opportunity to change the status quo. It is easy and fun to use, and the battery lasted for several hours — plenty of juice for playing games by yourself or sharing it with others. You can play in a fairly large space; I felt like my living room, with about seven square feet of carpet space, was mostly enough to get lost in VR, and the headset and controllers were great at tracking my head and hands.

The headset can scan and save up to five different real world spaces to use it in, to encourage you to take it to a couple friends' houses or other spots in your own home. Mercifully, setting up a new space takes seconds.

But do you really want to spend more than a few minutes boxing or dancing or swiping an imaginary sword through the air with nearly 1.3 pounds of plastic, fabric, and electronics on your face?

Show me the content

It's a question I kept asking myself while testing the Quest headset.

At first glance, there's plenty to do: it's launching with more than 50 titles, and while trying it out, I had access to a range of them.

Yet unlike the first time I encountered the original Angry Birds game on an iPhone, I didn't feel compelled to come back to the VR version of that game again and again. Nor did I really need to thrust the headset at family or friends and force them to try it for themselves.

"It could really come down to that killer app not being there," said Abbruzzese.

Until a VR headset maker — Facebook, HTC, Sony or some other company entirely — can marry a great all-in-one headset with experiences that you want to use over time, there's no point in shelling out for the hardware.

And beyond the lack of a gotta-have-it title (or titles), there are issues with the Quest that speak to the difficulties in scaling up wearable technology.

For instance, it's simply not built to fit people with smaller heads. I'm one of these people, and I couldn't adjust the Quest's Velcro straps to keep the headset securely in place on my noggin. This was a particular issue when it slipped as I was beating the stuffing out of opponents in the boxing game Creed: Rise to Glory. I still won, but fiddling with a bulky headset is the last thing you want to do while you're trying to punch out an opponent in the ring.

The name of the headset, Quest, signifies a journey, and conjures the danger, glory, and romance of knights, castles and dragon slaying.

Yet at this point, five years after Facebook announced it would pay billions to buy then-startup Oculus in hopes of turning VR into a mass-market technology, it's not quite clear if we're still trudging down the path, slaying any dragons that get in our way, or if Quest is, itself, the destination.

The-CNN-Wire
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