With Facebook's new headset, the future that virtual reality fanatics dream of is closer than ever — but we're not there yet

Business Insider US
An early version of the Oculus Quest, being demoed in September 2018.

  • Facebook unveiled the Oculus Quest, its first standalone virtual reality headset that tracks where you are in a room.
  • Business Insider got to try it out.
  • It's a remarkable device, but it still has some obvious shortcomings.
  • However, it points to a wild future ahead for virtual reality.

I got shot in the head on Wednesday.

Crouching behind a wooden crate in the desert, I was caught in a gunfight when a stray bullet hit me square in the face. My vision went red; I was dead - until I respawned 10 seconds later, after running behind new cover.

I was at Facebook's big virtual reality conference, Oculus Connect, in San Jose, California, trying out the latest VR headset from the Silicon Valley tech giant. The new device, the Oculus Quest, is slated for a Spring 2019 launch, and attendees were given the opportunity to test it out in a series of demos at the event.

It's the first major virtual reality headset that is both completely standalone and able to track a user's location in the real world - meaning you're freed from having to place external sensors or lug around a backpack-mounted computer to power the experience.

The Oculus Quest headset, as seen in September 2018.

From my admittedly brief time with it, it was a significant step towards the future promised by virtual reality boosters - fully immersive virtual environments, accessed through a simple headset - but the technical shortcomings of the present were still on clear display.

I got to try out two demos. One was Project Tennis Scramble, a quirky tennis game where you face off against a real-world opponent in virtual reality, as the racket and ball morph into quirky sports objects like golf clubs and beach balls.

During the demo, the headset felt a little heavy on the face, and the Oculus Quest's motion-sensitive hand controllers struggled to return the ball in the direction I was intending - though I am admittedly terrible at real-world tennis, so I may not be the best judge of this.

Oculus Connect attendees playing virtual reality tennis with the Oculus Quest in September 2018.

Significantly more impressive was Dead & Buried, a Wild West multiplayer shooter that was being held in a 4,000 square foot arena. Teams of three faced off against each other, hiding behind real-world objects that corresponded to pillars and crates in a virtual world.

It felt exciting and immersive, and the first time I got shot, I involuntarily jolted backwards. It was surreal to feel real-world objects corresponding to the virtual environment. And the standalone headset meant I felt unimpeded by wires or additional equipment, free to run around the area as I wished.

In contrast: During demos of the older Oculus Rift headset, which must be tethered to an external computer, Oculus employees had to hold attendees' cables for them so they didn't get tangled in them.

An attendee uses the Oculus Rift with assistance from an Oculus representative at the Oculus Connect conference in September 2018.

This freedom, alone, makes it a significant step forward. And it makes it a far more compelling product than the likes of the Oculus Go, which, while standalone, can't ascertain users' real-world position or head motions, making it little more than a toy.

But it still fails to to solve any of the fundamental problems bedevilling virtual reality. It's bulky and heavy, and will be draining to wear on your face for long periods. You can't focus well on virtual objects close to you. And while it demoed well in carefully controlled environments, it's not yet at all clear how it will perform in people's actual homes.

During the event keynote on Wednesday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that the company believes it needs about 10 million users on a VR platform to actually be self-sustaining and making it worth developers' time to keep building for it.

But a Facebook representative I interviewed refused to commit to hitting that target for Oculus Quest sales, stressing that it's only the first generation of products - suggesting the company isn't exactly convinced it will be a commercial success.

Attendees at Oculus Connect play Dead & Buried, an arena-based shooting game.

Without trying it extensively in "real" environments, away from Facebook's minders, I'd be hesitant to recommend anyone buy the Oculus Quest - and even then, it would come with caveats.

But it's still remarkable - and demonstrates the potential of virtual reality more clearly than ever.

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