I remember seeing the Oculus Rift for the first time at E3 2012 I think. It was very early hardware, the kind that you normally wouldn't show off to the press, but the folks behind the technology, including id Software's John Carmack, were excited. This was the step to real commercial-grade virtual reality. The headset actually had duct tape on it, and the only demo game was a jury-rigged Doom 3. I couldn't use my glasses and the resolution wasn't all that great, but it was an amazing taste at a possible future.
Fast-forward a few years to E3 2015 and I'm messing with the Crescent Bay prototype of the Oculus Rift, with former Oculus VR founder Palmer Luckey guiding me through a demo. I'm using the headset and the prototype versions of what will eventually become the Oculus Touch controllers. (I think they were called the Half-Moon at the time.) It's a stunning demo, as the controllers allow me to literally catch and throw objects with ease. The headset itself is much better than that first demo. Overall, I walk away from the demo stunned, but also questioning, as it took place in a soundproof cube set aside for VR demos. How would that translate to home use?
The answer is not well. The first Oculus Rift available was a great step for virtual reality, but while you could buy it never felt more than a proof of concept for me. The final headset was elegant in design, but it still had problems: it was a bit front-heavy, it had far too many cables, and it required at least one desk-mounted sensor for tracking (preferably three). The Oculus Touch controllers that hit me earlier weren't a part of the initial $599 package either, being delayed until later in the year. In terms of ease of use in my day-to-day, the PlayStation VR was easier to handle, though the trade-off there was a much lower resolution, the poor PlayStation Move controllers, and a connection box that wasn't compatible with the ten upcoming PlayStation 4 Pro.
At PAX East, I had the chance to try the next headsets in the Oculus VR lineup: the Oculus Rift S and the Oculus Quest. And in these demos, I finally feel like the initial promise of virtual reality inherent in my first demos might be delivered.
Oculus Rift S - Streamlining An Older Model
The Rift S is the new high-end model in the Oculus VR lineup, replacing the first-generation Oculus Rift. It's not really a quantum leap over the previous model, instead being more of a rethink of the design. The original Rift required a total of four USB ports for optimum tracking, one for the headset and three for the sensors. The Rift S only requires one USB port. This change is due to the Rift S rethinking tracking altogether; like a number of competitors, it uses a series of cameras on the headset to track spatial position. Two cameras face forward, one points upward, and another two point downward. These cameras also handle the tracking for the Oculus Touch controllers and if you need to see your environment without taking off the headset, there's a passthrough video mode.
With the change in the sensors also comes a change in cabling, one of my bigger issues with the first Rift. There's now a single cable that runs from the Rift S to your PC, ending in two connections: DisplayPort 1.2 and USB 3.0. Yes, there's still a cable that can be tangled around you as you move around in 3D space, but it's a single elegant cable, not a mess.
Oculus also cribbed from the best. The Rift S has a new strap design from Lenovo that's much easier to pull on and off, or adjust. Lenovo licensed the design from Sony, so it's essentially the same strap that's on the PlayStation VR. Much better weight distribution helps with comfort.
There had to be some cuts to get this down to affordable levels though. The original Rift actually had two AMOLED screens of 1080×1200 resolution, for a total resolution of 2160×1200. The Rift has a single 2560×1440 LCD screen that it splits into 1280×1440. The refresh rate is lower, and the Rift S lenses are fixed in position. The latter change won't matter to most, but those with very wide or narrow interpupillary distance (IPD) will experience blur that can't be corrected.
I demoed a new title called Asgard's Wrath and visually, there's definitely a little bump that can be attributed to the new screen. The game had me in the middle of a frozen arena, fighting the hordes of undead vikings. Tracking worked amazingly well, as I could dodge side-to-side, crouch, and even do a little hop in the real-world that was easily translated over to the game. The Touch controllers movements were likewise spot-on, though the Rift S could lose them if they ended up completely out of your field of view. Compared to the original, though, the new tracking system is aces. I still ran into the issue with the cable after spinning in the same direction too many times. You can't feel the cable most of the time, which is a vast improvement, but it's still there.
One change that didn't work for me on the Rift S is the new audio system. Instead of offering built-in speakers, the new headset pipes the audio through the headset straps. On the loud PAX East showfloor, even within a booth, the audio felt too quiet. The Rift S offers a standard 3.5 mm headphone jack, but it's a shame this solution isn't more traditional with built-in headphones. I understand cuts had to be made to get the whole Oculus Rift S and Touch controller package down to $399, but this is one change I disliked in the demo.
Overall, I walked away from the Oculus Rift S feeling that it was an improvement over the original, but not necessarily the headset for me. Better isn't fulfilling the vision though. That's what the Oculus Quest was for.
Oculus Quest - A Vision For Proper Mainstream VR
The Oculus Quest is the mid-range headset, sitting in-between the cheaper Oculus Go and the high-end Rift S. It's a standalone headset like the Go, but more powerful in terms of hardware. Quest is essentially a mobile phone. It's powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor, the same chip found in the older Samsung Galaxy S8 and Google Pixel 2 phones. This means that Quest games aren't as visually stunning as their Rift S counterparts, but it's likely for cost reasons: the Quest costs $399, like the Rift S. Likewise, it has only a mere 64GB of storage, so be prepared to delete and redownload games as that fills up. There's no word of a microSD slot.
Once you have it on—the strap isn't the newer version of the Rift S sadly, instead using the Velcro straps of the Go—Quest is a whole new world. I booted up Beat Saber, a game that's been making the rounds on Rift and PlayStation VR. Given the non-complex backgrounds and objects in the game, Beat Saber was right at home on the Oculus Quest.
Most importantly, I was finally free. There are no cables. It's just you and the virtual world you're interacting with. Like the Rift S, Touch controller tracking was near perfect, and I was hitting those Beat Saber cubes with ease. The headset overall is pretty light, I didn't even notice it on my head after awhile. You can move around the real-world environment if you want, nothing is getting in your way. It's simply stunning and everything I wanted when I first heard about virtual reality.
Oculus Quest is the real first step for commercial-grade virtual reality. This is the platform you can bring to a mainstream audience, because it's a standalone device that's easy to understand. You just put it on, grab the controllers, and you're immersed in a virtual world. No PC needed, no cords getting in your way. I didn't get to try Dance Central with my limited amount of demo time, but just the idea of it excites me.
Oculus Quest isn't quite the device that will lead to mass market penetration—I think the $399 price tag is still too high—but that's a problem that will be fixed later in manufacturing. Costs will eventually go down for the same hardware. Once Oculus VR gets that price right, then it'll have the right vector to the heart of the average consumer. The company is also quite mum on the battery life of the headset. The Go has a two-hour playtime, which is far too short, and I'd expect the Quest to slot in next to it. But overall, Quest feels like the Nintendo Switch turned into a proper headset. Hell, you could throw the thing in a bag and take it over to your friend's place.
VR won't take over everything, as some people simply don't want to wear a headset at all, but my time with Oculus Quest has convinced me that this is what I've been waiting for. Both the Oculus Rift S and Oculus Quest are launching this Spring for $399.