This review was originally published on April 30, 2019.
Last Saturday I pulled Oculus Quest over my eyes, booted up Fast Travel Games’ Apex Construct and played until the battery was flat. It lasted two hours and 50 minutes from full charge. In that time I had four instances of the device momentarily losing head tracking and two instances of the Oculus Touch controller tracking drifting or jumping unexpectedly.
Other than that, I played a fully intact PC VR game on a standalone headset. The visual fidelity had taken a significant hit but was far from unsightly. The freedom to twist and turn in VR without worrying about wrapping my legs in wires was liberating and, for the vast majority of the experience, the tracking performed in-line with current PC VR standards.
Quest has its fair share of caveats, then. A VR enthusiast that’s owned an HTC Vive or Oculus Rift for the past three years is unlikely to be swayed by its limited processing power and somewhat compromised tracking. But for the audience that’s sat on the sidelines since 2016, waiting for VR’s various barriers to come tumbling down, Oculus Quest is the real deal.
Quest is a standalone VR headset. That means that everything it needs to run is already built into the device. No PCs, no smartphones, no consoles; $399 gets you all you need to jump right into VR. As such, it’s heavier than a Rift; my scales told me Quest weighs in at 580g compared to Rift’s 470g. Having spent extensive time with both, though, I couldn’t really notice the difference. If anything, the padded lining faceplate on Quest makes it more comfortable to wear than Rift’s more rigid alternative.
There are some nice additions to the design, too. The head strap, for example, expands and retracts from the hinges, giving you room to pull it on and then have it fit to your head without adjusting it every time. That said, the tough rubber strap can dig into the back of your head over time, similar to how the top of your head can hurt when wearing headphones. It took a fair bit of fiddling to find the perfect balance but, once I got there, Quest felt great on my head.
Specs And Stuff
On paper, Quest is about in-line with what you’d expect from a mobile VR headset in 2019. Its 1,440 × 1,600 per-eye is an appreciated step up from the original Rift but far from a revolution, with the gaps between pixels still clearly visible once you’ve acclimatized to the device. Small text is definitely easier to read but don’t expect an eye-opening jump. Audio, meanwhile, adopts the same excellent design from 2018’s Oculus Go. There’s a pair of built-in speakers that allow you to play at a volume that suits you but also hear what’s going on in the world around you.
A three-hour battery life might not sound too impressive for Quest. But, in practice, I found this accommodated the headset pretty well. Many of VR’s best games simply aren’t designed for three hours of straight play. One way or another, they’re too intensive (I certainly had to push myself to stay inside for three hours of Apex Construct). My bigger concern is with the two hours it took to fully charge the device again once flat; Quest is a device that will require constant access to a charge port if you’re planning to play regularly.
As with Rift and Go before it, Quest is a sleek package from top to bottom. But, for once, we’re not really here to talk about display and audio, are we?
Inside-Out Tracking Triumphs
One of Quest’s main draws is its new inside-out tracking system, dubbed Oculus Insight. Whereas the original Rift used external sensors to track your headset and controllers in physical space, Quest has four cameras mounted onto the device itself. Oculus reasons that the shift to inside-out is so compelling that it’s even refreshing the original Rift with this style of tracking.
Quest makes a good case for the switch. The vast majority of the time you’d be hard-pressed to find a difference. Pretty much all of the content I’ve played on Quest so far (about six different games) has been perfectly compatible with Quest. In Beat Saber, I slashed my way through Escape on Expert (in No Fail, I’ll admit) without being able to tell the difference. In Space Pirate Trainer I shot for the same high scores with as much success as I’d have anywhere else. Even in Superhot VR I was able to slowly navigate a spray of bullets whilst reaching for weapons just out of sight. I’d assumed Quest wouldn’t be able to handle those actions, but it worked nine times out of ten.
As I mentioned up top, I played a near three-hour session inside the headset with six noticeable blips in performance. That’s definitely less than I’d encounter with, say, Sony’s single-camera PlayStation VR tracking, but also six more than I would with my SteamVR or original Rift setups.
Putting the tracking through stress testing does reveal its flaws, though, as the video above reveals. Quest’s camera can’t track behind you so, if you’re reaching around your back, the headset won’t know where your hands are. Oculus uses prediction algorithms and other sensors in the Touch to estimate where it might be but they’re not perfect. I could bring my hand from behind my head suddenly back to the center of the screen only for the Touch controller to appear when I stopped moving. Quickly swiping my arms from side-to-side often didn’t get picked up, either.
These troubles can manifest themselves in some games. In Journey of the Gods I had issues reaching up to the skies to snatch a bolt of lighting, for example. The controllers also struggle with getting up close to the headset, starting to jitter. Creed: Rise to Glory works well when punching, but holding my hands up to my face to defend myself saw my gloves drift slightly.
I even jumped into my Quest early one morning and wondered why I couldn’t get the tracking to work. I took the headset off and found myself bathed in a ray of warm sunshine, concentrated through my window. If I turned my back on it, the headset worked fine but I had to wait until the sun had passed to get the proper experience.
These shortcomings may have serious implications for future VR design. Many of today’s best VR titles should be able to cope just fine, but it’s hard to imagine the 360-degree gameplay of something like Lone Echo handling as well. If Quest takes off as many hope it does, will we see VR games made with these limitations in mind?
With this change in tracking comes a new means of staying safe in VR. Quest uses the same virtual barrier system, named Guardian, as seen on Rift. Get near the edges of your play space and blue borders will appear to let you know. But Quest’s passthrough camera evolves the system in two important ways. Firstly, it makes setup incredibly easy. Once you switch Quest on it will scan the environment for pre-established Guardian boundaries. If it doesn’t find any, it asks you to make them again. Doing so is as simple as putting on the headset and drawing a line with your Touch controllers around the area you can play in. You will occasionally have to redraw the area as it drifts out of its original position, but it’s not a big issue.
It’s wonderfully simple. Better yet, if you do step outside those barriers then the passthrough system automatically activates, showing the world around you. It’s intuitive to a degree VR hasn’t really enjoyed before. Previous setup systems were complicated and easily confused. With Quest, anyone that puts on a headset for the first time can be up and running in seconds. Better yet, if someone’s using the space you want to play it you can just find another one.
PC VR, Minus The Performance
While Quest might not need a $1000 PC to run, it’s an inescapable fact that its Snapdragon 835 mobile hardware can’t afford the same kind of performance seen on Rift. In many cases I’ve seen, VR developers have done a tremendous job optimizing their once processor-intensive games for much leaner hardware. Superhot VR feels as sharp as ever, for example, as does Beat Saber. Stack them side-by-side with the PC counterparts and it will be clear which looks better, but once inside Quest it’s hard to tell.
But sometimes the cutbacks feel a little too much. Survios’ port of 2018 boxing hit Creed: Rise to Glory has the playable fundamentals down, but the load times are ugly as is the reduction in textures.
It’s telling, too, that Oculus Studios’ own genuinely ‘new’ Quest games, Journey of the Gods and Ballista, adopt cartoonish, simplistic art styles that do away with the intricacies of photorealism. Again, Quest’s potential to sell more than its PC VR contemporaries could mean we start seeing a lot of VR developers adopting less graphically rich games in the future.
Fixed Foveated Rendering
Foveated rendering is a promising avenue for the future of VR. It’s a technique in which a headset only fully renders a certain part of its display, taking some of the pressure off of processing. Ideally, it would be paired with eye-tracking, allowing the device to see where you’re looking. Like Oculus Go, though, Quest uses fixed foveated rendering. There’s no eye-tracking, so the headset instead simply blurs the edges of the screen in hopes you won’t realize.
Unlike Go, though, I noticed the foveated rendering far more in Quest. Or, rather, I noticed it far more in some Quest apps. In some games like Beat Saberit isn’t perceptible. Again, though, Creed was the giveaway. In the game’s opening training montage I couldn’t help but point my eyes down and see two blurs for feet running on a treadmill. Tilting my head up over text to move it into the foveated area revealed the scale and size of the effect. It renders fully right in the center and gets increasingly blurrier as you move closer to the edges of the display. You can see the effect in these images captured directly from the headset.
I’ve found the technique to range from incredibly distracting to occasionally noticeable. Creed is the main offender, yes, but it also caught my eye in games like Journey of the Gods and Apex Construct. It’s a necessary evil to get some of PC VR’s bigger games onto the headset but problematic all the same.
Oculus Quest is mostly successful in its mission to make VR as accessible as possible in 2019. If you’re a VR enthusiast that already owns a bleeding edge PC headset then this is not the device for you. But, if you’ve sat on the sidelines for the past three years longing for a chance to play Beat Saber and Superhot VR, this is your best bet. When Quest is at its best (and it often is), it delivers an experience so close to PC VR you won’t care about the difference.
And yet, for all its advances, Quest likely still isn’t enough to truly take VR mainstream. Its limited mobile hardware and occasional tracking glitches hold the system back, as does the usual array VR caveats like display resolution. Could it expand the audience beyond the niche group that enjoys VR now? Absolutely. Is it VR’s iPhone moment? Probably not. For now, though, that might be just enough.