It's Winter Adventure Week here at B&H, a time to celebrate frosty feats and wintertime wonders. To make this week happen, several of our intrepid authors trekked into the icy elements, combing the cold countryside for action, adventure, and the occasional photo tip or two. However, we did have a few weather-averse writers (read: me) who opted to do their adventuring indoors, where it was nice and warm. Wait a second. Are indoor adventures even a thing? Indeed they are, thanks in part to the power and prodigy of virtual reality. I recently embarked upon a series of indoor adventures using the most sought-after VR system on the market, the Oculus Quest. Here's my review.
But before diving into my review, I think it's important to provide a little bit of context. Prior to the Oculus Quest, I didn't have a ton of experience with VR gaming. I'd tried a couple of demos, watched some online clips, etc. I wasn't an early adopter, nor was I all that studious a follower of the VR industry. Virtual reality, augmented reality, mixed reality—they all seemed pretty "niche" to me. Cool ideas, sure, but not very practical and, to be frank, not anything I ever thought of as all that appealing.
But then the holidays came, and my entire opinion of VR changed. What happened? Well, it started when I gave my girlfriend the Oculus Quest as a gift. She's one of the biggest Star Wars fans I know, and I had heard nothing but great things about the Vader Immortal VR series, so I thought the Oculus Quest Vader Immortal bundle would be a nice present.
Flash forward to later that night when I'm setting up the Quest for her. The process itself was pretty straightforward: adjust the fit of the headset, establish the safety boundaries, etc. Nothing too crazy or difficult. But then came the last leg of the setup: a brief intro into the wild world of virtual reality, complete with a mechanics tutorial. It was there, in that virtual training center, that my opinion of VR was forever changed—all thanks to the Quest.
To explain what happened, I need to go back in time a bit, to the first time I ever played Metroid on Nintendo. Metroid is a video game. It was my first video game, on my very first game console. I remember the first time I turned it on I was overcome by this alien sense of awe and just total wonder. Here was something completely new, something I'd never seen or experienced before. It was such a rare and exhilarating feeling. And that's exactly how I felt the first time I used the Quest.
The Oculus Quest isn't the first virtual reality system, far from it. Readers from my generation might recall the Nintendo Power Glove or Virtual Boy, two VR devices that predate the Quest by more than twenty years. And then there's Oculus VR, the Facebook-owned maker of the Oculus Quest, who, in 2012, helped revive the VR scene with its groundbreaking Oculus Rift system. Many more VR systems followed. HTC Vive, PlayStation VR—the list goes on. The point is that VR has been around for a while, it's got a rich history, and, especially in the last few years, it's become pretty darn good. Why then is the Oculus Quest so special? What makes it such a transformative experience? In a word: wires. Or lack thereof.
Much has been made of the Quest's wireless setup, and rightfully so. While other VR gaming systems rely on a connection between the headset and either a PC or console, the Oculus Quest is completely wireless. How much does a single wired connection really matter? In my experience, quite a bit.
Before the Quest, all the VR demos I'd tried were tethered systems—meaning there was at least one connection cable running between the headset and computer or console. And while the gameplay of those demos was fun and engaging, the conspicuous pull of the cable, the occasional tangle or trip, kept the experience from being totally immersive. That wasn't the case with the Oculus Quest. Without any cables tethering me to the real world, I felt totally absorbed in virtual reality. It was exhilarating, incredible, at times disorienting, and even a little scary. While playing Vader Immortal, I peered over the ledge of a narrow walkway high above Mustafar and nearly pitched sideways from a sudden feeling of vertigo. Later, in the same episode, I got completely turned around fighting a gang of lightsaber-wielding 'droids and ended up on the other side of my real-world apartment. Luckily, the Quest's sophisticated boundary system kept me from flailing into a wall.
Beyond its wireless setup, the Quest's other boon is its hardware, specifically the headset and Touch controllers. Looking at other reviews, I noticed a split in opinion about the comfort level of the headset. Some reviewers think it's great for long use, others find it a bit too heavy or unwieldy. Count me among the former, since I never once noticed the weight of the headset, nor did I experience even the slightest bit of discomfort. However, comfort level is fairly subjective and tends to vary from person to person and head to head, so it's definitely worth trying the Quest on before purchasing it (B&H has one on display, if you want to come take it for a test drive).
In terms of might, the Quest doesn't have the same horsepower as some of the wired systems—the PC-powered Oculus Rift S, for example—which means it's not meant to play the more graphically intensive titles (fret not, there is a workaround). The Quest, however, does have a higher per-eye resolution than the Rift S, though, admittedly, images were sometimes a bit grainy. Personally, that occasional graininess never bothered me. Why? Well, for starters, my vision is like 20/1,000 (seriously), so the world always looks kind of grainy to me. Second, a slight graininess in some of the visuals didn't impair my experience. It just made me feel like I was in the middle of a slightly grainy dream. And finally, intermittent graininess aside, the colors and black levels in the Quest were consistently good, and the overall contrast was excellent, meaning more often than not you get good, high-quality images.
Of course, solid visuals are only half the recipe of a successful VR platform. The other big ingredient is the tracking system—i.e., how the platform translates your real-world movements into virtual reality. The Quest employs Oculus's new Insight system, which uses inside-out tracking to translate your movements into VR. Reader, it works so well. No matter where you're standing or in which direction you're facing, the Quest will render your actions into VR. The effectiveness of this tech is on full display in games like Superhot VR and Beat Saber, where you're constantly twisting, turning, ducking, and slashing. And because every move I made was translated so accurately into the virtual world, it made me feel like I was standing in the middle of a game, not just playing one.
Along with the headset, the other key pieces of Quest hardware are the Touch controllers. Overall, these too are excellent, though there was a bigger learning curve for me to get the hang of them fully. Part of that is because I tend to hold the controllers differently, depending on the game. My Beat Saber grip, for example, is much more relaxed than when I'm playing the boxing game Creed. Playing Creed, I feel compelled to hold the Touch controllers tight and make fists. But with Beat Saber, my fingers are more slack. I tend to create a fulcrum with my thumb and index finger like I'm holding a drumstick. The alternating grip style made me feel a little clumsy whenever I switched to a new game, though that feeling usually passed. The other hurdle was getting used to the controllers' buttons and thumbsticks, especially the unique inputs. With the Touch controllers, certain button presses elicit specific hand movements, such as pointing and grabbing. It's a little weird at first, but the beginner's tutorial does a really good job of acclimating you to these mechanics, and once you do get the hang of them, they become second nature.
Of course, the quality of the Touch controllers—which, again, is excellent—might well be moot by the end of the year. Why? Well, because Oculus recently released a new software update that enables hand tracking for the Quest. What is hand tracking? It's exactly what you think it is. In place of the Touch controllers, the Quest can recognize and translate hand gestures, allowing you to perform operations inside the virtual world using just your hands and fingers.
Right now, hand tracking only works with certain applications, such as Oculus TV and the web browser, and within those applications, you can only perform certain actions, such as clicking, scrolling, and other simple interactions. But even in this limited use case, I can honestly tell you that hand tracking feels like the future. Using the Touch controllers to flip a virtual switch or pull a digital lever is really cool, but performing those same operations with just your hands is absolutely incredible. If wireless design were the first step toward a more immersive VR experience, then hand tracking will be that experience fully realized.
Now, beyond its inherent appeal, the fact that Facebook and Oculus even chose to develop and distribute hand tracking—at no cost to the customer, by the way—is another reason I'm so excited about the Oculus Quest. Because, what it signals to me is that they, Facebook and Oculus, are not finished refining this product, nor are they finished improving its experience. That bodes very well for Quest owners and VR enthusiasts in general.
OK, but isn't the development of hand tracking just a one-off improvement? Nope. Remember how we said the Quest doesn't have the same graphical horsepower as the Rift S? That's true, it doesn't. So what does Oculus do? Well, instead of saying, "tough luck, go buy a Rift," they release the Oculus Link, a USB-C to USB-C connector cable that allows you to tether your Quest to a computer, boosting its power and enabling access to a much larger game library. The Link even comes with a nifty little cable strap that'll help keep it out of the way and help preserve some of that wireless feel.
And then there's modding. Instead of closing the system, Oculus made it incredibly easy for anyone to install custom apps on their Quest using programs like SideQuest and BMBF. They didn't have to. They could have shut "modders" out, made the Developer Mode inaccessible, or restricted customizations altogether. Instead, they gave us access. They left the system open enough for us to customize and tinker. Why? I don't know, but from where I'm standing it seems like they genuinely want Quest users to enjoy their VR experience and for the quality of that experience to evolve and improve continually. If that sentiment is true, then you really have to be excited about what's next for Quest owners, because it's going to keep getting better. But even if it's not true, nor anywhere close to the real reason, Oculus' vaguely laissez-faire attitude toward the modding community means I now get to play Bruno Mars's 24K Magic on Beat Saber every day, and ultimately, that's all the matters.
This my fourth Adventure Week at B&H, and during my time I've swum with some sharks, surfed North America's tallest sand dunes, gotten lost at sea, and crashed several drones. And though I do love the fun and excitement that each adventure provides, given the choice, I think I'd prefer just to stay home and play my Quest. I've only had the Quest for three weeks, but already in that short time I've battled alongside Darth Vader, swam with some penguins in Antarctica, climbed a couple of rock faces, and stepped into the ring as Apollo Creed. And not one time did I get seasick, sunburned, or frostbitten. I never experienced a near-cardiac event climbing the world's tallest staircase or face-planted into a mud pit. The Oculus Quest gave me all the action and adventure I could hope for, all from the comfort of my own apartment. And as a VR platform, I cannot recommend it enough. The experience is incredible, the games are great, and the technology and resources Facebook and Oculus continue to pour into the Quest have me very excited for the future. If, like me, you're late to the VR party, believe me when I say now is the time and Oculus Quest is the way.
For more information, click here for the Oculus Experience.