Hands-on: Oculus Quest is an intriguing new middle ground for VR

Let’s get one thing out of the way right up front: Oculus Quest is not the wireless, PC-free version of the Rift you may have been dreaming of. The Snapdragon 835 SoC powering Quest is much closer to a mid-range mobile phone than the Nvidia GTX 960 graphics card (and surrounding Windows PC) required to run a tethered Rift. The field of view and maximum refresh rate on the Quest both seem more comparable to the portable Oculus Go, which is a bit of downgrade from the Rift as well (though we have yet to confirm precise numbers for any of these devices).

Let’s get another thing out of the way: None of that seems to matter that much when you’re walking around an apparently solid virtual reality space without the need for any outside hardware or any external cameras or sensors.

At Oculus Connect this week, we got to try four different game demos running on what was described as near-final versions of the newly announced Quest hardware (previously known as the Santa Cruz prototype). What we saw was generally solid movement and hand-tracking in VR environments that were visually comparable to the lower end of Rift games. Not too shabby, considering the $400 asking price starting next spring.

Fitting Oculus Quest to your face is very similar to putting on a Rift headset, right down to the adjustable, springy velcro straps on the sides and the top strap for stability. The unit was relatively easy to forget about once it was on (at least for the five- to ten-minute demos we engaged in) with no need for constant adjustment of the fit or focus, even as we were moving around quite a bit. Oculus wouldn’t talk about the final weight, but it felt pretty Rift-like on our heads, only without a wire tugging on the side, of course.

The demos

Our first demo, Superhot VR, was a pretty direct port of the first few levels of the original game, which is still one of the best VR titles around. The game’s stark red-and-white color palette and large, stylized polygons make it a good fit for the Quest’s diminished hardware power. If you squint you might be able to see a little less detail in the Quest version’s 3D models, or make out a little more fuzz around the edges of objects. Overall, though, it’s an amazingly faithful port.

While Superhot VR was designed to be played mainly standing in one place, in the Quest demo I reveled in being able to walk right over to enemies and punch them in the chest or shoot them point-blank, without worrying about getting tangled up in wires. At one point I got too excited about this prospect, running over to an enemy and almost smacking into a real wall (Oculus’ Guardian system came up just in time to save me).

Our second demo, Project Tennis Scramble, brings up immediate comparisons to Wii Sports tennis, with cartoon-style avatars hitting a ball back and forth over the net. This demo showed off rock-solid head and hand-tracking during some fast ball-chasing movements, with no noticeable stutters to take you out of the moment.

Having full control of the racket’s position made it remarkably natural to direct the timing and angle of the shots to some extent. Still, the whole process seemed to rely on semi-canned animation paths for the ball, rather than a truly dynamic physics simulation. Racket movements that should have easily resulted in high-arcing lobs often resulted into low shots over the net, for instance, without much rhyme or reason. The demo also showed a disconcerting bit of server-based animation lag in the opponent’s avatar, which I could see swinging its racket only a second or two after the ball was already on its way back to me.

Interestingly, the tennis simulation here also seemed to re-tune itself based on the size of your play space. In my large demo area (a square roughly 20 feet to a side) I had to take a step or two and really lean in order to reach shots placed far to my side. My opponent (our own Sam Machkovech), who playing in a smaller space, reported that any balls hit to him ended up easy to reach without taking a step, no matter how “wide” they seemed in my view.

The third demo, Face your Fears 2, was by far the weakest proof of concept of the Quest hardware shown. Graphically the game is full of muddy, dark textures that aim for “realism” but just end up in a VR uncanny valley that highlights the artifice involved. Gameplay-wise, the simple search-for-the-item-you-need “adventure” was little more than an excuse for a lot of cheesy jump scares, mostly involving large spiders lunging at my face.

This is one of those games where you largely stand in place and use the analog stick to plod very slowly through a VR environment, to avoid motion sickness. I could walk in “real space” too, but mixing those two motion options worked pretty terribly. If I tried to actually walk to to other end of a hallway, for instance, I’d have to stop short when the Guardian system warned me of a real wall. Using the analog stick to move past that point while also trying to recenter myself in the real world turned the whole thing into a disconcerting mess.

Arena-scale shooting

My final Quest demo of the day was the most intriguing: A multiplayer, arena-scale version of the Rift’s wild-west zombie shooter Dead & Buried played in a massive 4,000 square foot playspace. The developers had set up that space with large, tape-covered boxes in the real world, which were then recreated as destroyable cover in the VR world (shattered boxes turned translucent in VR, so we’d still know there was a real obstruction there).

Teams of three shot at each other from behind this cover, kneeling and popping up in a high-tech and instantly engaging version of laser tag. Quest’s inside-out tracking got a real workout here, compared to the relatively empty spaces of the other demos. Reaching out a hand to feel those boxy barriers, the physical and virtual versions were only off by an inch or so. Not too shabby for a self-contained headset.

The tracking did get really wonky a few times, though, when I crouched too close to the ground. At that point the virtual world stopped updating for a few seconds, and I had to sit still before things could recalibrate. Oculus representatives stressed that this demo was at the “cutting edge” or research into inside-out tracking, and would not be ready for launch, but it was still disconcerting

The Dead & Buried demo also gave us a taste of Quest’s limited “mixed reality” functions, which show you the real world as a series of wavy black outlines of people and objects in your surroundings. It’s a trippy effect, full of noise and depth-sensing artifacts that are especially apparent when you move. Still, it seems like a decent enough way to briefly get your bearings in the real world without having to take off the headset.

What we don’t know

There are still a lot of unanswered questions about the Quest. Chief among them is battery life, which Oculus refuses to discuss outside of a promise that they’re “making sure it’s great for long gaming sessions.” We didn’t get to see the hardware’s system menu interface, or see how the initial room-level tracking setup worked, either. In between demos, we did notice Oculus Connect staffers often having to recalibrate the units by looking wildly around the room, though; hopefully that will not be the case with the final retail units.

We also don’t know how buying games on Quest will work just yet, though we do know it won’t be able to just directly access the thousand-or-so Rift games and apps directly without porting work on the part of developers. Oculus cofounder Nate Mitchell told us that players who had purchased a Rift game might be able to get the Quest port free of charge, but that decision would be up to the individual developers.

What we did see, though, was a pretty compelling middle ground that finally offers solid, full room-scale VR tracking in an easily portable form factor—and at a much more consumer-friendly price than headsets requiring high-end gaming PCs (or even specific smartphones). Oculus Quest definitely isn’t going to replace the Rift for people who demand best-in-class fidelity and performance out of virtual reality. Still, with fewer tracking compromises than the low-end mobile sets and fewer dollars required than the top-of-the-line tethered headsets. Quest just might hit that middle-ground sweet spot for people who want to see what all the VR fuss is about.

Sam Machkovech contributed to this report

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