I’ve been testing the new Oculus Quest virtual reality (VR) headset from Facebook, and I’m quite impressed by this piece of hardware. Facebook took what it learned from shipping its earlier products—the high-powered, PC-tethered Oculus Rift and the less-expensive, standalone Oculus Go—and put together a $399 standalone headset that offers a very good VR experience. It’s not perfect, but from a hardware perspective, it ticks off many of the boxes needed to help move VR toward a mainstream audience. Unfortunately, the Quest is still missing a vital piece of the puzzle needed to bring in the average consumer: mainstream content or a must-have app.
Masterful Hardware Combo
I can’t overstate this: The Quest is a truly impressive piece of hardware. Facebook has pulled tougher some of the best technologies available, within the limitations of its price point, and produced a very solid product that never feels like a compromise.
At the heart of the headset is Qualcomm’s 835 Snapdragon processor, which brings impressive mobile-computing power within a reasonable power envelope. Facebook leverages the chip to drive an OLED display that offers 1440 by 1600 resolution per eye, with a 72GHz refresh rate. The Quest utilizes inside-out tracking, which means you don’t have to set up external sensors to track the headset and the handheld touch controllers.
Setup is straightforward: Using the Oculus smartphone app, you connect the headset to your home WiFi, download any updates, connect the controllers, and begin. The process is fast, easy, and clever, teaching you what you need to know about the system while you map your space and have a little fun. I was consistently impressed by the Quest’s tracking capabilities (Facebook calls it Insight Tracking), which held up across a wide range of uses. I also like the integrated audio, which channels sound toward your ears without forcing you to wear headphones (although people nearby may not appreciate hearing what you hear).
Compared to the previous generation Oculus products, the Quest feels more polished and complete. Yes, the Rift (and now Rift S) offer higher processing and graphics performance thanks to the connected PC, but there’s just no getting around the limitations that the physical tether there represents. And, yes, the Go is lighter and a bit more comfortable to wear, but the limitations of that $199 product’s hardware and tracking quickly become evident. The Quest represents an impressive merging of next-generation technology and smart design that leads to the desired outcome: You stop thinking about the hardware and just embrace the VR experience.
Good, Not Great, App Selection
The Oculus Quest represents the best VR technology 2019 has to offer. However, once setup is complete, and it’s time to get down to the business of using VR, things aren’t as rosy. When the Quest shipped in late May Facebook said there were about 50 apps, which is notably fewer than what’s available on the long-shipping Rift. It’s hard to get a precise count inside the Quest, but there doesn’t’ appear to be a huge number more today. And, unfortunately, hardware limitations mean that many of the titles currently available on the Rift will never make their way to the Quest. Facebook tries to address this scarcity by adding apps such as Oculus TV and Oculus Gallery (which I was pleased to see found my networked PLEX app, bringing to the Quest my stored videos and photos). Of course, volume isn’t everything, but after you spend a few days inside the Quest, you can’t help but feel like there’s just not that much content to explore.
Plus, most of that content has a price tag attached to it. App developers deserved to be paid, of course, but on a new platform such as this, where users are casting about for content they want to try, the biggest points of friction are discovery and the upfront cost of the software. Facebook offers what appears to be a fairly generous return policy on some content (although the terms and conditions document is daunting), but more of this content should be free to try. HTC has cleverly addressed the challenge of making content more discoverable, while making sure to compensate developers for their work, with its VivePort Infinity services that let consumers pay a monthly or annual fee to access VR apps, games, and videos. That service is available on the Oculus Rift, but not the Quest. Facebook needs a comparable service.
The content, or lack thereof, is really where the Quest falls down. While I’m confident that there’s more on the way, I’m less confident that there’s an inbound app that will shift the Quest from a product that early adopters and some gamers will embrace, to one that mainstream buyers need to have. That’s because, despite the hardware advances, and all the talk from Facebook and others about next-generation experiences, on the consumer side of things, VR remains in a gaming and video playback rut. To date, we’ve not seen the types of apps that move these products from something a few people are willing to buy and use to one that many people are excited to try. Most expected this to be some form of social app, but the current environment around that category may delay that vision.
That said, it’s very hard to get developers creating exciting new types of apps when the hardware installed base for VR remains small. And, of course, the installed base for a standalone product such as the Quest is even lower. One hopes that this product, and those that follow, will help to address this challenge. We are coming ever-closer to the point where the VR hardware is “good enough.” We just can’t say the same about the breadth of VR experiences. Yet.
Looking beyond consumers, I do expect commercial VR buyers to embrace the Quest. As I’ve noted in the past, enterprise buyers are increasingly leveraging VR for a wide range of uses cases, led by training. The Quest’s hardware capabilities, combined with Facebook’s ongoing efforts to address commercial users pain points, should make this product quite attractive to IT buyers. And success in the commercial space may buy Facebook, and the broader VR category, the time it needs to figure out just what type of app is needed to eventually drive a compelling mainstream VR story.