September 6, 2019

Review: Oculus Quest

In terms of gaming advancements that I think are undeniably ahead of their time, I think VR gaming continually proves itself equal measures intuitive and prohibitive, a step forward with unavoidable drawbacks. I’ve been an early adopter on VR gaming tech for a while, picking up an Oculus Rift development kit back in 2014 and trying out most of the big headset brands to release commercial products in the years since, and I am consistently interested in vR’s road to being a viable consumer product.

While the Oculus Quest is undeniably the closest VR hardware has come to being a viable step forwards for the industry, it’s still a very specific product for a very specific audience. If you’ve been itching to get into VR, the Quest is probably the best way today to do it, but that doesn’t mean every gamer needs to rush out and get one this minute.

So, what is the Oculus Quest exactly? Well, it’s a stand alone wireless room scale VR headset. Where most other VR headsets on the market today rely on external hardware to power their games, wither a smartphone slotted into the headset or via a cable connected to a console or high end gaming PC, the Oculus Quest contains all the hardware to run the games inside its headset itself. While you need a USB-C cable to charge the headset, you can use it for several hours without needing it to be tethered to another device. Where some VR headsets only support playing games from a static perspective, the Oculus Quest being a room scale headset means that you can select an area of your room, create in game barriers so you can tell where is safe or not to walk, then walk around inside 3D game worlds the way you would walk around your real home.

First up, let’s talk about the screen and in game image quality. While the Oculus Quest is not the most high end visual headset on the market right now, it hits a very strong sweet spot between entry level and top end options. Because it’s not relying on a phone to power its games, it produces considerably crisper and more detailed visuals than most phone powered wireless VR headsets, and even outperforms some headsets powered by external devices. The image quality outperforms the PlayStation VR, and has additional benefits such as the ability to adjust eye spacing to get a more focused image. You do get some light leakage around the nose which is unfortunate, but it’s not severe enough to be a huge issue. If you look for it you’ll notice it, but when immersed in a game it’s easy to tune it out and focus on the virtual world you are inhabiting. Your field of view range seems comparable to the PSVR, with some awareness of edges to your vision compared to the HTC Vive for example, but again it walks a fine line and manages to keep this visual drawback small enough it’s easy to overlook.

Put simply, the Oculus Quest manages to just cross the required hurdles to allow players to get properly immersed in their game worlds without too much light leakage, field of view limitation, or screen door effect. The refresh rate on the screen is high enough to not cause motion sickness, and the headset manages to avoid positional drift or lag also associated with some cheaper phone based wireless VR options. It’s an impressively good looking VR experience considering its small form factor.The headset is small, comfortable on the face during multiple hour play sessions, and not so heavy that it becomes uncomfortable on your face. The Oculus Quest really seems to have found a good compromise between comfort and visual quality for a standalone wireless device.

Next, let’s talk about room scale, and how the Oculus Quest handles letting you wander around your house without knocking over your TV. Previous high end room scale VR solutions like the HTC Vive have managed room scale VR by having players stick boxes that require a power source up in the upper corners of their room, usually using tripods or wall mounts and trailing cables around the walls. These boxes would basically send out IR lights, see what they hit, and map out the room as a result. These boxes provided good room scale VR accuracy when working properly, but did encounter issues if your room was too large, or contained too many reflective surfaces like mirrors which could interfere with the IR lights. It was cumbersome but effective. By comparison, the Oculus Quest manages to pull off largely the same effect in a much more simple to use manner.

The Quest features four very wide angle cameras in the front of the headset, facing out into the room around you, which it uses to track your relative location in the room, the location of your motion controllers in your hands, and the boundaries you set up for your space. While you have the option to play the quest sat down in small spaces, if you are able to clear yourself a few feet square in a room in your home, you simply put the controllers on the floor while looking at them to set the position of the floor, draw around the boundaries of your room while looking at a black and white camera feed of where you are stood, then the headset handles the rest.

While I was initially worried that this setup would result in the Quest losing track of my room boundaries or drifting, I was remarkably pleased with how well the solution worked. The headset remembers room layouts between sessions, meaning I could boot the headset up in the same room days later and it remembered where the floor and walls were which was great. It’s however important to note that if you drastically change the layout of your room between play sessions, you may have to remake your boundaries. Basically, let’s say you remove your sofa from the living room, then look where your sofa was, the headset isn’t going to know where in the room you are anymore. However, that’s a small issue in the grand scheme of things, and in no way a deal breaker for this effortlessly simple room scale VR solution.

The Quest comes with two motion controllers which are light, comfy, and track really well. If you put a controller behind your back, deliberately out of sight of the headset cameras, and keep it there a while it may start to lose positional accuracy until you look at it again, but that’s a situation you’re only likely to encounter if you make a considerable effort. The controllers contain four face buttons, a pair of analogue sticks, as well as triggers and grip buttons for grasping things in VR. They’re comfortable, easy to use, and responsive. I couldn’t ask for much better from these controllers.

In terms of the headset’s audio, there are headphone jacks on both the left and right sides of the headset to make plugging them easy regardless of dominant hand. However, I have mostly played the Quest using it’s built in speakers. These speakers offer relatively loud and crisp audio, with rock solid directional sound quality, while managing to leak a remarkably small amount of noise to others in the room. i don’t know if it’s pumping the sound into my face bones rather than my ears or something, but I was amazed at how loud it seemed to me, while quiet to those around me. Additionally, this had the benefit of not shutting me totally off from the world, being able to better talk with others in the room with me, or hear the doorbell when the postman came to the house. It’s some wizardry on show, particularly in terms of its directional ability, and something I am making surprising amounts of use of.

Last, in terms of compliments for the Oculus Quest, it is by far the quickest and easiest VR setup on the market for those who don’t have a dedicated VR only space in their homes. If I want to use the PSVR or HTC Vive in my living room, I need to make sure the hardware to run it is hooked up to my TV, then boot up these devices, plug in the headset cables, run software on the device, put the headset on to check it is working and set up right, and it’s basically a lot of set up time and energy to get going. The Quest is simply a button press, and it’s booted up. I’ve found that reduction in setup time and energy a real draw to using the headset with more regularity, something I really appreciate.

So, now’s time to talk about the two major compromises the Quest makes to achieve these wonderful advancements for VR, namely the price and the software selection. At nearly £400 for the entry level 64GB model, and more above that if you want to double the on board storage, the Oculus Quest is pretty pricey, clocking in around the range of a new home console at launch. This isn’t necessarily a problem in and of itself, I am pretty sure I spent near enough £400 for a PS4 around that console’s launch window and I’ve had years of fun with its huge library of lengthy, in depth, emotionally driven big budget blockbuster games. The problem is, at launch at least, the Quest doesn’t really have the software library to back up its price point, and Oculus are not doing enough to inform Quest owners of what they have to look forward to.

There are some great games available on the Quest today, including the amazing Beat Saber (use lighsabers to slash your way through music), and Virtual Virtual Reality (Portal humour style adventure game about doing jobs for demanding AI). There’s also a really robust YouTube VR app which allows you to download videos to watch offline, which is great for watching YouTube content on a huge screen on long journeys, and Tilt Brush, which allows you to paint in thin air in 3D space which is honestly a magical experience. SuperHot VR is a blast to play, slicing bullets out of thin air in Matrix style bullet time, and Moss allows you to play a platformer from an external perspective, working alongside a sign language talking mouse who I love so much. But a huge number of VR games found on PC platforms are simply not available on the Quest right now. The Quest runs off an Android based operating system, rather than Windows, meaning that developers will need to see enough demand to create ports to the system, and right now I’m not seeing huge numbers of VR devs announcing ports to the Quest coming any time soon. I need a Nintendo Direct style presentation every now and then to let me know what I can look forward to.

Supporting Android does mean the Quest can be set up to allow running of external APK apps, which does offer some nice opportunities for freeware apps, as well as sideloading content like custom songs into Beat Saber with relative ease which is great, but it’s no replacement for a reliable library of existing software. I’m keeping my PSVR around still, explicitly because it has a bunch of great games I just can’t get on the Quest. It has not 100% replaced the need for other VR headsets I own, which is a shame because in terms of tech it seemed poised to do just that.

Also of note, because the Oculus Quest is a bit of a walled garden in terms of stores you can access on it to purchase software, many games on the Quest simply cost considerably more than they would if you got them on Steam on PC during a sale. There’s no incentive to lower the price of games, so expect your software to be an additional expense upon purchase.

Lastly, and this is pretty minor, while the headset features adjustable Velcro straps and an elasticated band that makes it easy and comfortable to get situated on your face, I couldn’t tighten the headset in such a way that it didn’t feel loose and insecure when leaving my head forward, trying to point my head down in certain situations. It never fell off, but it had moments it felt like it wasn’t as secure as I would want it to feel.

Price and software availability aside, the Oculus Quest really does feel like a step forward for VR towards a place where it might soon be ready for wider adoption. The headset is of a good quality, easy to boot up, set up, and use, without needing wires to power its software. It works effortlessly, and provides the kind of experience that one day might have the same consumer appeal as something like the Wii. I can use the Quest, and totally see a world in which mass adoption of VR becomes the norm. But it isn’t today. The Quest doesn’t have the price or software library to be the headset that brings VR to the masses, but if you have £400 to burn and you’ve been itching to try out some of those cool VR games you keep hearing praise for, this is probably the best option out there right now. The ability to have quick set up room scale VR and watch cinema screen movies on a plane both in one device is fantastic, I just hope enough software continues to launch for the headset to justify its cost of entry long term.