Something big happened last week, and I’m not sure anyone really noticed. Both Facebook and Lenovo (with partner Google) released new VR headsets: the Oculus Go ($200) and the Mirage Solo ($400) respectively. Just like plenty of other VR headsets, these devices allow you to fly over mountains in a squirrel suit, watch YouTube on a 100-foot screen, and blast zombies to smithereens.
What’s different is that these headsets are cheaper–cheap enough that the Go is projected to be a bestseller in the industry. They were also designed as completely stand-alone gadgets, like an iPod for VR. They require no tower PC, no tracking systems mounted to your walls, and no heavy cord attached to the back of your head. They don’t ask you to put your smudgy phone into a little scuba goggles case, either. Sitting on my couch, I can slide on the Go or Solo, pick up a tiny remote, and be inside the world of VR in moments. It just goes to show how freakin’ fast a whole new paradigm of computing can move when it’s backed by two of the most valuable companies in the world. Virtual reality is quickly mastering the human factors that have alluded it.
If the first phase of VR was about proving crazy technology possible, then this phase of VR is about proving that these headsets can have a place in your life. As a result, VR has never been closer to its iPod moment. Yet over the last week, as I tried both headsets, I oscillated between being floored by the progress VR has made and frustrated by the lingering disappointment that comes with a technology that feels one small step from being incredible–and that small step, ironically, may be trickier to bridge than all the technical leaps combined.
Industrial design for VR has found its sweet spot
The Oculus Go and Mirage Solo–despite being completely independently designed–take nearly identically designed approaches to creating a VR headset you can pop on and off casually. They’re anything but Neo locking himself down to jack into the Matrix–which is pretty much what the gold standard of VR, the HTC Vive, has asked us all to do. Instead, the Go and Solo sneak into your life a lot like a phone. They sit on your counter mostly asleep, most of the time. Pick them up, and they know to come to life through sensors.
Each pops onto your head in about three seconds of straightening and adjusting for comfort. You probably wouldn’t want to wear either for hours, but they’re comfortable enough for 30 minutes to an hour of use. The Go has a particularly fantastic trick. It’s concealed some mini speakers on your temples, so you don’t even have to wear headphones. It’s such a good illusion, it sounds like the headset strap itself is making music.
In terms of UI, each presents you with a very navigable app store floating in a serene environment when you arrive–like a forest or mountain. That means you can be inside VR in just moments, and when you get there, a whole other world feels ready for you, and it’s filled with a Netflix-like queue of content waiting to distract you from it.
One caveat–the Go tracks you looking on the X Y axis, and the Solo tracks you on the X Y Z. What this means is basically that, for $200 more, the Solo lets you lean in close to a board game, or the virtual face of someone talking to you. I was impressed that it let me to inspect the glowing dashboard of Blade Runner’s flying car as it whipped through the rain. It even let me stand up and take two steps forward on a virtual street before graying out and telling me to sit down for my own safety. From these two-second bits of experimentation, the Solo seems able to track your position in a room pretty well–but not guarantee your well-being walking through it yet.
The remotes are both very decent, too. The Solo uses the stock Daydream remote–which is basically like a mini version of the old Nintendo Wiimote. It allows you to aim it in VR like a laser pointer, which is ideal for menus, or gesture like a wand, which is flexible for the motions you might want to make in immersive VR games. Plus there’s a trackpad for your thumb, and a couple buttons to allow conveniences like quick recentering, essentially instantly calibrating the headset in case it gets confused.
The Go’s remote–developed by the Oculus team–is like a slightly upgraded riff on the Daydream controller. All of the same stuff is there, but it’s also got a trigger, which is obviously key for all those first-person shooter games.
With the Go and Solo controllers, we’re witnessing the rise of a mouse for VR. Sure, each might be shaped differently, but Google and Facebook have each evolved toward a unified design that’s incredibly versatile in gaming, but no scarier than a television remote.
Maybe all of this doesn’t sound all that impressive. Keep in mind that this evolution basically happened overnight. VR headsets got smaller, self-contained, and controllable through similar remote standards. It’s the equivalent of going from a 1983 Mac IIe to a 2008 Macbook Air–but in two years rather than two decades.
What’s Left To Solve
Despite all this progress, I don’t find myself abandoning my friends and family to hop into VR all the time. Even at night, the lure of my phone outpaces the lure of the virtual world. I appreciate what’s been built here, but I’m still not drawn to it as much more than a novelty.
Good software is a start. I’ve played a lot of VR games, apps, and demos in my time. And for every transcendent app like Tiltbrush, there are about 1,000 ill-conceived microgames that feel like the worst of the iPhone’s App Store but on your face. Most VR experiences still feel like experiments. No developer has sunk the $100 million budget it would take to create Call of Duty in VR because there simply aren’t enough VR users to make it worthwhile. Most of the projects feel like after-hour proof of concepts.
And because the Go and Solo do have less processing power than a PC-connected VR headset would have, that means even the Oculus Go doesn’t have some of the more appealing games from the Oculus app store. Imagine if your iPhone never got Angry Birds, or Candy Crush, or Facebook, or a decent mail app. So all you did was swipe around on the touch screen in awe of what it seems capable of. That’s where casual VR is today.
Secondly, VR needs to be more stunning. In its worst moments, VR still feels like you’re looking through a good pair of binoculars at something else, rather than your own eyes darting across the real world. You can see edges of black in your periphery, and items on the screen can be hard to read.
Facebook has said it’s testing a headset called Half Dome that has a 140-degree field of view. It can track your eyes, and with special lenses, it can refocus to what you’re trying to look at in real time. I can only imagine how many micro comfort issues this will solve. Half Dome seems poised to fix a lot of that.
VR also needs higher resolution for a lot of the experiences to work. While games with huge polygons feel wonderful in virtual games, all of the 360-degree live video experiences are like putting murky, mid-’90s YouTube right in front of your eyes. There’s a good reason for that: VR headsets are essentially phones that we’re holding at point-blank range from our faces. The pixels and video compression are much easier to notice at that range! But as I kick my feet back on my couch, to load up Avengers playing on a simulated, 100-foot movie theater screen, I’m simultaneously in awe and trying to be in awe. My conscious brain is fooled, but my limbic brain is not. Or maybe my limbic brain is fooled, but my conscious is not. Either way, Thor’s six-pack is simply too fuzzy to stop Ragnarok. I still wouldn’t want to watch a whole movie this way, while I paid $13 to see Avengers in a theater.
That said, when I do take off the headset, I look back to my 50-inch screen on the wall. It seems so tiny, so disappointing. My phone is razor sharp but similarly diminutive. It makes me realize that, right now, VR is just good enough to make everything else feel close to being dated. But how many millions, or billions of dollars in investment, how many years, or decades, of advancement, are necessary to get there? If Facebook and Google can keep up this rate of progress, maybe that future really isn’t so far away.