Three years ago, I duct-taped a laser tracker to the top of my eminently patient wife’s painting easel. On a converted baker’s cart in the corner, I set up a glowing green PC. Then I ran half a dozen cables between the PC and a HTC Vive VR headset. This was the price of the best VR experience on the market: To be able to actually walk around and wave my hands in physical space, I had to wrap my dining room in wires.
Now, just three years later, VR is a solved design problem. The solution is called the Oculus Quest, a device that comes out today starting at $400.
In nearly 15 years of writing about cutting-edge technology, I’ve never seen a single product line get so much better so fast. With Quest, there are no PCs required. There are no wires to run. All you do is grab the cloth headset and pull it around your head. Maybe adjust some Velcro, once. Grab the two motion controllers, and you’re in VR. Real VR. I mean full, walk-around-and-lift-things VR. All of the computing happens right on the headset, while the tracking happens from the “inside out” instead of requiring external points of reference. The Quest uses its own cameras to make sense of your environment all on its own. (You can read more about the deep tech specifications here.)
Here’s a shortlist of problems the Quest has solved, in no particular order:
- Using the Quest feels casual instead of a time-sucking commitment, because the Quest turns on when you put it on and it goes to sleep when you take it off, instantly. Never boot up a dedicated PC again, or curse as you stick your thumb-smudged phone into a VR headset adapter.
- You don’t have to download new firmware and constantly plug in the controllers to update them–meaning you’re never punished for playing. It’s an automatic, wireless patch. All three pieces of hardware feel and act like one single system.
- To make VR less isolating, you can broadcast your first-person view to local Android and iOS devices, so anyone in the room can see what you see. No more cryptic “whoa, this is amazing!” statements that no one else in the room understands.
- If your controllers are sitting on a table, a little R and L will float above them so you grab the correct one in the correct hand.
- Thanks to updated industrial design, you now look really cool while using VR. (Just kidding! You’ll still be mocked by everyone around you as they quietly take photos without you knowing.)
But most importantly, Oculus’s design team has figured out how to let you walk around your house in a headset without hitting anything in the real world.
How does the Quest avoid this last point? That’s the best part of the whole setup experience. When you put the headset on, you see a black-and-white feed of your surroundings. This allows you to navigate your home like you’re a slightly tipsy dog, which is totally adequate. To program a safe play area (in other words, a virtually fenced-in space to walk around without hurting yourself), all you do is point your controller at the ground and draw the boundaries. The Quest responds perfectly with a flowing, digital chalk line. Complete your polygon–just sketch around that kid’s toy in the way instead of moving it–and a wireframe of digital walls pops up around you. Inside any VR game, if you get too close to a real wall, it will display a wireframe boundary. Leave the play space, and your view automatically turns back to that black-and-white feed. Drawing this dedicated space is so easy that it takes seconds. It’s completely noncommittal and also seemingly unlimited (I drew a box around several hundred open square feet of my basement).
But here’s the crazier thing: The Quest remembers. Standing in a completely separate room next to the game area I defined, I glanced through the doorway to see the space glowing, waiting for me. The Quest is 3D mapping everything in sight. (Yes, that’s a bit creepy given that Oculus is owned by Facebook. Oculus says it doesn’t collect or save images or maps of your environment on its servers–that information is saved on-device instead.)
All of these little user experience improvements add up to create something newly compelling. I thought I was done with VR around 2017; once the novelty wore off, it just wasn’t worth it. But I’ve spent hours in VR since receiving the Quest, hopping in and out on a whim in 15-minute bursts. I’ve dodged bullets in slow motion in the Superhot VR. I’ve shown my son, age 5, around the wonders of the world like Machu Picchu on Wander (which puts Google Street View in VR–with incredible success.) I’ve sliced full-size watermelons with twin katanas in Fruit Ninja VR. I’ve ballroom danced with a robot in Oculus’s own First Steps (more fun than it sounds!). I’ve watched 8k YouTube clips on a convincing 50-foot movie screen. I’ve revisited TiltBrush, that remarkable 3D drawing app Google acquired back in 2015, because I don’t have to jack into the Matrix-like Neo every time I want to draw some sparkles in midair.
VR still needs developers to create more games and experiences to make the Quest something you’d use a lot for a long time. Because most developers prefer to build mobile apps for billions of phones instead of virtual reality apps for millions of headsets, that content problem might not be solved anytime soon. But after just a few years, Oculus has delivered VR hardware that’s good enough to feel like VR but simple enough to feel like an iPod. That alone is remarkable.