Since it’s mobile, the $649 Quest is obviously not as powerful as a high-end PC that you might use with something like the Oculus Rift S, and if you compared the two setups directly you’d doubtless notice that many games on Quest are less graphically complex.
But not only is the Quest thousands of dollars cheaper once you factor in the cost of a PC, its wireless nature will make lower fidelity a totally fine tradeoff for most people, myself included. The more important factor for VR is the consistency of the game’s performance and the motion tracking, which have been rock solid in all the games I’ve tested on Quest so far.
The Quest supports “room scale” games (it’s recommended you have 2 metres x 2 metres of clear space), or stationary ones, and while many of the games at launch have been around for a while there’s a few brand new titles including Star Wars: Vader Immortal. Setting up the headset requires the Oculus smartphone app, which is also a handy way to purchase games and apps and send them to the Quest. If you like you can also use the Quest as a virtual big-screen cinema for watching apps like YouTube or Netflix.
The unit resembles any other Oculus headset, but inside is a tiny computer running on a Snapdragon 835 and 4GB of RAM. The display is an OLED panel at 1440×1600 per eye and a 72Hz refresh rate. In layman’s terms, it’s essentially the guts of a high-end phone but with a screen custom built to ensure clear and comfortable VR.
There’s 64GB of storage (you can pay more for 128GB) and a built-in battery that’s good for around two-and-a-half hours of gameplay before it needs a charge. There’s also great-sounding built-in speakers by each ear (other people in your house will be able to hear these, so you’ll have to attach 3.5mm headphones for discrete play).
Velcro straps on the top and side of the unit secure it to your head, while a stretchy band sits at the base of your skull to make sure everything stays put. Handily there’s a spacer included in the box that will give the headset a little more depth to accommodate most eye glasses, so you don’t need to get prescription lenses for the Quest.
While previous wireless VR headsets only allowed for three degrees of freedom (i.e. rolling, tilting and rotating your head), the cameras embedded in the Quest allow for a full six degrees of freedom, meaning you can walk around your space, strafe sideways, jump or crouch down on the floor and your movements will all be replicated in VR.
Of course the other part of the puzzle is hand tracking, and the Quest achieves this through a pair of wireless controllers. Though they have sticks and buttons like a traditional game pad, most experiences use intuitive touches and gestures instead. The devices can monitor movement of your thumb, index and middle fingers, so you can point, press, grab, throw or even give a thumbs up. The controllers attach to your wrists with a strap, in case you accidentally let go. Smartly, if you do drop a controller, it appears in the VR experience so you can find it again.
You might imagine that, with no cords or cables tethering you, it would be easy to wander straight into a wall or down some stairs. But this is where the headset’s Guardian feature comes in.
When you put the headset on, you’re shown a monochrome view of your surroundings, and asked to use the controller to draw a boundary on the floor around you. Virtual walls then spring up from these lines. During a VR experience the walls will appear as a blue mesh if you get too close and turn red if you’re about to hit them, letting you know to take a step back. If you do have a dedicated space for VR, the headset will remember where your Guardian should go. It took me some time to trust the system and stop trying to look down under my nose to get my bearings, but the system is an effective safety net.
Overall the most impressive thing about the Quest is that the friction of previous VR setups is almost totally gone. It’s not locked to one location in my house, and I can hand it to anyone and know they can figure out how to use it. This might not be the most powerful VR headset, but it has the potential to become the most popluar, and I’d take the freedom and ease of the Quest over better graphics on a tethered system in a heartbeat.
Tim is the editor of The Age and Sydney Morning Herald technology sections.