The Oculus Quest
Image: Oculus (via Ars Technica

A brand new game console launched this past week, but you’d be forgiven for having missed it. On May 21st, Oculus released the Oculus Quest, a new VR Headset/Console which it hopes will finally be the VR headset for the masses. It’s received relatively little coverage on gaming websites for understandable reasons: VR has largely been a niche product for a few reasons, but among the most notable were the price and the ease of use.

The current most popular headset, Playstation VR, has been relatively successful having sold over 4.2 million headsets. However, it still requires you to own a Playstation 4 before dropping an additional $250 minimum for a bundle with the headset (more to get the Move controllers required for some games), the setup involves lots of wires, the tracking requires perfect lighting conditions to track even reasonably well, and the visuals are rather blurry due to the 1080p screen. With PC VR headsets you get superior tracking and better visuals, but they require you to be tethered to a relatively beefy PC with a good graphics card which, even when you throw the price of the cheapest headset on top of it, raises the cost to over $1000.

The Quest is Oculus’ attempt to mitigate or outright remove as many of these issues as possible. Everything is self contained within the headset: the plastic shell on the front houses the processor, battery, and four cameras used for tracking both the two Touch controllers and the headset’s position. The device uses two 1440 by 1600 screens per eye giving the device a higher native resolution than either PSVR or Oculus Rift. It has six degrees of freedom tracking of both headset and controller meaning it can track the rotation and position of both unlike mobile headsets which only track the rotation. The price is $400 for the 64GB model or $500 for the 128GB model. The trade-off is that the graphics of the games are worse with lower poly counts, lower resolution textures, and compressed sound.

So, are the trade-offs worth it? Has Oculus succeeded in finally making a VR device for everyone? Obviously, some random guy on the internet isn’t going to be able to answer those questions less than one week after launch, but I will be able to tell you my experience with the headset so far, starting with the initial setup and my first impressions of the device itself.

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For a frame of reference for the rest of this feature, I own both a Playstation VR and an original Oculus Rift powered by a PC running a GTX 1070 so I am no stranger to VR. As such, a lot of my impressions are going to be a bit warped when compared to somebody who has never tried VR.

Using the Oculus Quest
Photo: TechCrunch

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Setting up the Quest

Initial setup of the Quest is relatively easy but with one caveat: it requires a mobile device capable of running the Oculus app (iOS 10 or higher or Android 6.0 Marshmallow or higher) and an Oculus account. It’s worth noting that although Oculus is owned by Facebook, you do not currently require a Facebook account to get an Oculus account. While this may be an issue for some, I feel this was a wise choice as it lets you do some of the steps that would have otherwise been tedious in the headset on your phone such as getting the device connected to Wi-Fi and downloading initial software updates. It even smartly allows you to multitask: you can view the store via the phone app so you can make initial purchases and queue up downloads while the Quest is installing its initial updates. Once these updates are complete, you watch a short safety video on the phone before putting on the device. Not counting time taken to ensure the device was fully charged, it took me about 10 -15 minutes to remove protective coverings on the lenses, put batteries in the controllers, and run through this first phase of setup.

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After putting on the headset, you’ll see a short tutorial designed to help you get the device fitted properly and to adjust the screens and lenses to match your pupil distance (IPD). This is my first gripe with the Quest: the setup for this is very unclear. On the Rift, you see a very thin dotted vertical line which makes it very easy to immediately tell whether the headset isn’t fitted properly and your IPD is improperly set. As you adjust your IPD on the Rift, you see the number in mm on the headset which makes adjusting it per user a breeze (my IPD is 69 for instance). On the Quest, however, you’re presented with some vertical bars which are so thick that it’s hard to tell if the headset is properly fitted, and more confusingly the device no longer gives you a readout on the current IPD setting. This made my first couple days with the device irritating as I found myself constantly playing around with the IPD slider as I could tell things were slightly off but struggled to get it dialed in. I’m hoping a future software update adds an IPD readout so I can set it and forget it as easily as I do on the Rift.

Guardian and Passthrough

It’s at this point that you’re prompted to set up your play area, and this is where the Quest’s advantages start to shine. On the original Rift and in Steam VR, setting up the barrier of your play space was a process that took several minutes and involved wandering around the edge carrying either a controller or your headset, placing the headset on a flat surface, placing it on the ground, entering your height, and numerous other irritating steps. On the Quest (and the Rift S), you actually see the real world in 3D via the infrared cameras on the front of the device using what Oculus calls Passthrough. You see a grid on the floor as the device attempts to automatically detect its current height. Personally, I find this step usually works fine, but if it’s off, you can manually tell it where the floor is by tapping a controller against the ground.

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Next, you define your play space by simply pointing your controller at the ground and drawing the edge. This whole process takes under 30 seconds once you get the hang of it and is one of the things I absolutely love about the Quest. You can see the whole guardian setup process in the video below starting at the 0:42 mark. Note that the frame rate is much smoother in the headset itself.

Once in VR, the guardian will automatically appear as your head or controllers approach it. If your head passes through the Guardian, you’ll see the real world fade in via Passthrough. This has a lot of little but meaningful advantages. For starters, it makes putting on your controllers easy since you can literally see them and the device renders indicators on them to show which is left and right. You can also place drinks outside of your play area so you can see them and take a drink without having to take off the headset.

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The issue with it, however, is that while the headset is supposed to remember up to five room profiles and automatically detect when it’s in an existing one and load accordingly, I find it’s very hit and miss. I’ve had situations where it failed to recognize the same room in different lighting conditions or loaded the guardian slightly off of the correct position. I’ve also had it somehow perfectly recognize the same room and load boundaries despite starting in opposite corners of the room. Overall, while I’d like for the automatic detection to work better, the setup itself is so quick and painless that I don’t mind having to redo it.

First Steps

If this is the first time using the device, you’ll be taken directly into the First Steps app. It starts with a quick non-interactive visual feast for the eyes set to a lovely score meant to wow first-time users out of the gate before settling down into a proper tutorial. The tutorial is smartly designed to get users used to common VR actions from walking around in their play space and locating buttons on the controller to interacting with objects using virtual hands. Eventually, you’ll get the option to go to two more mini experiences including dancing with a robot and a shooting gallery meant to show you how you can interact with people and objects in a more game-like environment.

Yes, Oculus released a trailer for the Tutorial

This is something Oculus has always done extremely well: showing the magic of VR and teaching the user while having fun all within minutes of setting up the device. The Rift has always had a similar tutorial which flowed into an app called First Contact (which is actually available on Quest as well as a separate download). It’s a great idea to have a system-wide tutorial as it can take the weight off of future developers of games having to have their own tutorials to teach basic actions. It’s also very nice that you can relaunch this tutorial at any time making it easy to show off VR to friends and family.

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Initial setup is complete and we’re ready to use the device to do whatever we want. However, since I haven’t had quite enough time with enough games to discuss here, I’ll instead focus on the headset’s OS and features itself from here on out.

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Fit And Comfort (And Lack Thereof)

Let’s get some of the bad out of the way first: this headset is front-heavy. This is to be expected given you’re mounting not only lenses and screens in front of your eyes but also cameras and computing power, but just because it’s expected doesn’t mean it’s good. I can and have used PSVR and Rift for hours at a time, but after about an hour in the Quest, I can feel it sagging in front regardless of how well I get the straps to fit.

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With that being said, there are some positives. First, it’s not so heavy that it’s unusable by any means: sure I just said I felt the weight after an hour, but on the bright side that’s still a full hour with a computer generating VR visuals strapped to my face. Second, the strap design while not as easy to use as the halo strap on PSVR ensures that the headset doesn’t move around as much during fast head movements ensuring the picture stays clear.

Last, the headset comes with a glasses spacer, so glasses users like myself can safely use the device. The original Rift design shoved my glasses into my face so hard that I ended up buying custom prescription lenses just to make the issue go away. While it’s not as comfortable as not wearing glasses at all, the glasses spacer makes it far more comfortable than the Rift in that department. However, it should be noted that the glasses spacer makes the nose gap larger and lets light into the headset. While light scenes mask this well, it can be distracting during dark scenes: for this reason, I recommend playing such games in more dimly lit areas.

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Dark scenes such as this one from Vader Immortal suffer from the aforementioned light bleed through the nose gap.
Screenshot: Squadaloo

To end on a more positive note, despite the level of work being done by the mobile processor, the headset runs surprisingly cool. The front of it is only slightly warm even after long play sessions and I’ve yet to fog up the lenses.

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Visuals

A vast majority of VR headsets suffer from what’s known as the “screen door effect” where the user can see the gaps between pixels in the image. It can be very distracting at first but you get used to it. Thanks to the resolution of the Quest, however, the issue is reduced when compared to the original Oculus Rift. However, to me the bigger advantage of that resolution bump is that text is easier to read and objects in the distance no longer become blobs only a few pixels tall. It also helps that the lenses themselves have a large “sweet spot”, or area in the center of the lens where the image is most clear. This is easily the best headset I’ve used in terms of sheer optics with resolution that matches premium headsets like the $800 HTC Vive Pro.

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The downside, though, is that those screens are at the end of the day being used to display graphics rendered by a mobile processor. While it’s not quite as bad as it may sound at first (see the above image of Vader Immortal), you can tell where cutbacks were made. Many models are noticeably low poly or lack advanced shaders. Others, like cars in Robo Recall Unplugged or parts of your ship in Vader Immortal have horribly muddy textures that look several console generations behind. Some games, including the aforementioned Robo Recall, are running downsampled to keep the frame rate up and look slightly blurry in comparison to titles running at native or near-native resolutions. I should note though that some of these issues may be more noticeable to someone like me who saw some of these games on PC and thus can make an easy comparison.

Still, it’s impressive what Oculus has managed to squeeze out of a 2 year old mobile chip thanks to some active cooling.

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Inside-Out Tracking and Controllers

The Quest’s six degrees of freedom tracking is powered by what Oculus calls Insight. Using a set of four cameras on the front of the headset, it tracks the rotation and position of both the controllers and the headsets. Insight is what’s known as Inside-Out Tracking meaning the device itself does the tracking rather than relying on external sensors.

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While the benefit of this setup is that you don’t need external sensors, there are some limitations. Controllers can only be tracked if they are in view of the cameras so if you put them behind your back, bring them too close to the headset, or obscure them with your arms, they will stop tracking, although the controllers do have sensors to fake some tracking for brief cutouts. The other concern is that the cameras need to see the room to determine its position so you cannot use the headset in total darkness.

Oculus Insight Promotional Image

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With that being said, I’ve found tracking to actually be better than expected. The headset tracking itself has been flawless to the point that I’d honestly say it’s superior to the original Rift and its external sensors. With the Rift, every now and then my headset position will suddenly shift where no such thing has happened on Quest.

Controller tracking has been far better than satisfactory: it’s lightyears ahead of Playstation VR’s floaty Move Controllers and much closer in quality to PC VR than I expected. With that being said, I have experienced a couple brief hiccups here and there, and I also haven’t tried a game featuring a bow and arrow, two-handed gun, or other scenario in which I need precise tracking while the controller is close to the face. I did, however, play the demo for Creed: Rise to Glory, a boxing game which requires you to place your hands in front of your face to block, and while other users have reported issues with this I found it to track well enough that it didn’t impede gameplay.

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Speaking of the controllers, Oculus has redesigned its Touch controllers used with the original Rift to be smaller and have a tracking ring on top to make Insight Tracking work easier. Personally, I consider the original Touch the gold standard in VR controllers at the moment: They’re amazingly comfortable, have solid control sticks, and good buttons. The redesigned Touch, unfortunately, are not quite as good although they still share many of the same benefits. The button layout is still the same, but the thumbsticks are now smaller and feel more similar to the Nintendo Switch Joy-Con’s mini thumbsticks instead of a full control stick. The new placement of the tracking ring makes the controller slightly top heavy although it does not take long to get used to it. The trigger and joystick also sound springy which makes it feel cheaper than the original controller. Overall, though, they’re still good controllers and the concessions made to make them more portable are acceptable.

Sound

Unlike the original Rift which featured a pair of relatively high quality attached headphones, the Quest features built-in speakers on the headstrap. I was skeptical at first and had heard reports that it didn’t sound very good, but after trying it, I’m pleased but not overly so. Through some miracle of science and technology I don’t understand, the on-board speakers mounted near the front of the headset provide positional audio: in other words, if someone in VR is standing to the left of you talking, it’ll sound like it’s coming from the left despite the fact the sound is coming in front of you.

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The Quest features Built-In Speakers with Headphone Jacks
Image: Oculus

It also feels a lot more natural not wearing headphones: while the Rift’s headphones always sounded fantastic, I never realized how having the headphones brushing against my ears subtly detracted from the experience until they were gone. It also helps those who don’t want to feel isolated from friends and family that you can hear both the outside world and VR world with clarity.

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There are, of course, trade-offs. The audio quality definitely falls short of headphones: while sound effects and dialogue usually sound fine, music very much sounds like it’s being played on speakers in front of your ears rather than from all around you. Everyone outside of the headset can also hear what’s going on although it doesn’t sound as loud as it does for the user. While you can use headphones, you’re stuck adding a wire into a wireless setup. Finally, there’s the flip side of the “not feeling isolated” positive I mentioned earlier since being able to hear the outside world can reduce immersion.

All things considered, I’ve spent my entire time with the Quest without headphones because it helps the pick-up and play nature of the device and I like how freeing not having headphones is. Plus, I’ve found it makes demoing the unit easier since you can just talk to the user while they maintain positional audio.

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Capturing and Casting

While it doesn’t feature automatic recording of the last few minutes like PS4 and XBox One, the Quest actually does let you record footage while you play. The output video is in an odd 1024 by 1024 resolution and is fairly compressed to avoid eating up storage space, but it’s in .mp4 format making it easy to work with in other video editors.

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Unfortunately there are some issues with it at the moment particularly with sound. All video clips have audio de-sync so you’ll want to export the video files to a video editor to re-sync the sound. I also experienced one instance where a captured video clip’s audio was completely corrupt. There’s currently no way to capture microphone audio. Also, while most apps I’ve tried experienced no performance issues while capturing, I did see frame skipping during Vader Immortal while recording that did not occur during normal play. It’s worth noting though that the frame skipping did not show up in the captured footage.

Still, even with its problems, it’s a lovely feature to have, and Vader Immortal aside it’s impressive the headset can mostly maintain performance while recording. You can see an example of a recorded clip below, although I have re-synced the audio.

You can also cast your screen to either your mobile device via the Oculus App or to a TV via a Chromecast Gen 3, Chromecast Ultra, or Nvidia Shield...in theory. In practice, I’ve had some issues with the casting feature. When I took my headset to demo to coworkers during a work party, despite both my phone and the headset being on the same network and the phone even locating the Quest on the network, I kept getting an error saying “headset not found” despite the fact headset even recognizes it’s getting a request to cast its screen. Even when you do get mobile casting working, there is no audio.

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You do get audio if you cast to Chromecast which for me worked flawlessly. However, you can’t start casting directly to Chromecast via the headset: you instead need a phone on the same network as both the headset and the Chromecast to set it up. Thankfully via the Passthrough system, I was actually able to set this up while keeping my headset on, but it’s far from ideal. Also, based on reports from other users, the audio can desync badly, the framerate can be spotty on the TV, and the feature doesn’t work with TVs with built-in Chromecast even when those TVs include the latest versions of Chromecast. Last but not least, currently some apps do not allow Chromecast streaming, most notably Beat Saber although the developers are working on fixing it.

I really hope they iron out the streaming kinks as it will make demoing the headset much easier: when streaming failed during my coworkers demos it was fairly troublesome to have them describe what they’re seeing to get them into the right app. With that being said, at least some of these issues sound like software issues so hopefully they get fixed in future patches.

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Portability and Ease of Use

At this point, I should be honest with all of you: after my first two days with the headset, I was kind of regretting getting the Quest. As somebody who already had PSVR and Rift, I got the Quest largely for the novelty factor, and while I thought the tech was very impressive, I was personally stuck using it to play games in the same play space I play my Rift in. Given the sheer number of ports on the console, this meant I was playing the same games with lower graphics settings in the same space.

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It wasn’t until I decided to bring it to work on a whim that it sort of clicked. We were scheduled to have a lunch party where we played some Switch games so I was already bringing my Switch, dock, controllers, and cables in a backpack. I decided to also throw the Quest, its controllers, and power cord into its official carrying case (available for $40 extra), and threw that into the same backpack. Gaming in 2019 may have its problems, but the fact you can casually throw everything you need for a multiplayer console experience and roomscale VR into one backpack is pretty amazing.

The Oculus Quest official carrying case, a Nintendo Switch, and a Switch carrying case for a side-by-side comparison
Photo: Squadaloo

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Once at work, I was able to take the Quest out and get it set up within 5 minutes, and it would have been much shorter if not for the length of our company Wi-Fi password that needed to be entered in the headset, and the streaming issues I mentioned in the last section. Unlike most other gaming consoles, the controls didn’t really need explaining as I simply ran people through First Steps: the console teaches the users itself. It was a hit with the people who tried it. One of them asked what has historically become the dreaded question for VR enthusiasts: “How much is it?”

For once I could say “$400" confidently without following it with “but...” and a laundry list of items they’d need first. “That’s not bad!” was the response.

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At the end of the demo, the Quest actually took less time to take down than the Switch since there were no cables to pack up: just throw the two controllers and headset into the carrying case, zip it up, and go.

I’ve heard the Quest mentioned as “The Nintendo Switch of VR” and while I feel that’s not 100% accurate (you’re probably not playing Quest on a plane or train), it has a similar “easy to setup, easy to breakdown” quality of the Switch and dock, and that has me feeling a lot better about the Quest now than I did a few days ago.

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That wraps up my initial thoughts on the system. If there’s any other questions you have about it or if you feel I didn’t cover something I should have, let me know in the comments. I plan on continuing this feature in the near future by covering some actual games including Vader Immortal, Journey of the Gods, and Robo Recall Unplugged.