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Once upon a time…

Ever since I was a kid watching Star Trek with my older brother, the future of virtual reality was one of those things that I really got excited about. And yes, I recognize that the Holodeck was more about holograms than it was VR, but it’s easy to see the connection between them. Years went by, and augmented reality became a bit more mainstream while VR development continued. AR came to phones, although mostly novel, but still gave that little kid in me a boost of excitement around what the future of these new ‘realities’ would hold. As it is easy to do, though, those dreams of childhood wain, and we get caught up in the moment: Family. Work. Pandemics. And especially for me, a focus on what is more than a focus on what will be.

It is without doubt that our collective technological future will be frickin incredible (that is, until we are ruled by our AI overlords). Meanwhile, there are phones and tablets and new gadgets coming out every month that tend to garner most of my attention.

In 2017 with the release of the Samsung Galaxy S8, I got my first taste of what VR might become as a preorder gained me access to the Gear VR headset, which ran on the Oculus VR system. I had my S8 for a short period of time before selling it, along with the headset, so I never really delved deep into the platform. What I remember, though, is that VR was gimmicky…frustratingly so.

VR that I can get behind

In discussion with Jordan (or as he seems to be referred to now, “Crumbs”) about VR, he commented that one of his big holdups with VR was that you could still see the pixels. This is true, however, presumably hard to combat with a screen so close to your eyes. Still, when the Oculus Quest 2 was on its way to my doorstep, I was pretty excited about testing that theory.

What’s notable for me about the original Oculus Quest is how little I heard about it. There were perhaps a handful of people in my extended circles who were interested in it, but aside from some seemingly gimmicky Youtube videos, my exposure (as it relates to advertisements and word of mouth) to the Oculus platform has been limited. In some ways that makes for a more exciting first experience, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself there.

The updated version, the Oculus Quest 2, was released in October and at least on paper seems to make a handful of improvements over the original Quest, including more RAM and a better processor. Oh, it’s also lighter, cheaper and supports more internal storage. In particular, the biggest difference between the two is the display technology, which transitions to a 90Hz LCD versus the original Quest’s OLED.

What’s in the box

The unboxing experience was clean and simple, and considering this is a review model I’m not entirely sure the retail packaging will be the same. Opening the lid revealed three main pieces: the headset and two controllers, all of which appear to be made of premium materials. Sure enough, while the equipment is lightweight—a critical feature—there is nothing “cheap” or “clunky” going on here.

The headset has a simple strap adjustment system that allows the unit to fit a variety of head sizes. A strap across the back controls how snugly the unit is held to your face, while a top strap keeps it from sagging. The official age range is 13+, however, my 9-year-old had no issues with wearing and using the Quest 2. The eyepieces sit inside the headset, and the spacing between them is adjustable to three different settings. These settings have a corresponding visual component that is displayed when the headset is worn. Also included in the box is a small plastic bracket that serves as an extension for those who wear glasses.

This, by the way, was the first surprise for me, although maybe it shouldn’t be. Shouldn’t VR be able to account for and correct vision problems to some degree? It’s not a huge deal, but something that got me thinking. Anyway, the glasses extension does its job fine, and aside from getting the headset on and off over your glasses, provided you don’t have frames that are too big, these should fit you fine. I even left the extension piece in for a period of time when switching users frequently, and my performance wasn’t really hindered.

The controllers are comfortable and seemingly designed with ergonomics in mind; they look complicated at first glance but I found them easy to get used to. They are each powered with a single AA battery, and include safety straps which I highly recommend you use even if you don’t think you need them. Also included in the box is a power adapter and USB Type-C cable for charging the headset.

No PC required…but setup is still non-trivial

Once you get the headset snugged-up to your head, the initial configuration begins. This requires a Facebook account, of course, but the headset arrived with a 40% charge, so I could work through the setup and try a few demos before needing to charge the unit for the first time. Charging, by the way, took about two hours, although my measurement was far from scientific.

Given my lack of experience with the original Quest, I found myself impressed at the setup of the VR-specific components. The primary tool that the Quest 2 uses is called the “Guardian,” which allows you to draw boundaries in your existing environment so that you remain safe while using the device (or at least, mostly safe…more on that later). The Guardian setup is simple and straightforward, but key in providing the best user experience; note that stationary boundaries are also available as not all content requires you to move around a physical space.

It’s not a hard-wear (see what I did there?)

Terrible dad jokes aside, the hardware itself is impressive. The lightweight headset packs two screens each with a resolution of 1832×1920…but yes, you can still see the pixels. That said, I didn’t often find myself in a place where being able to see the pixels was problematic, at least in part due to the available content. Games that are more animated don’t require the pixel-perfect accuracy that ultra-realistic games do, and while VR is still very much a developing technology, I wouldn’t expect a mobile experience like the Quest 2 to compete with mainstream game consoles that can push those ultra-realistic graphics. Still, the visual experience is an engaging one, and the pixel density doesn’t detract from that experience.

Also impressive are the Quest 2’s onboard speakers which are paired with the strap system, allowing for close proximity to your ears. And they are good speakers, too; they get plenty loud so as to block out noise within your environment, although anyone else sharing that space will be able to hear most of what you’re hearing as well. The Quest 2 sports a 3.5 mm headphone jack allowing for a more immersive experience, so your favorite headphones should connect without issue. Additionally, you can connect a bluetooth headset wirelessly, although Oculus identifies the pairing of bluetooth devices as ‘experimental,’ which I take to mean it doesn’t always work that well. That said, I didn’t have any issues with connected bluetooth headphones.

The Quest 2 has four forward-facing cameras mounted in the body of the headset. These cameras have two functions; primarily, they ensure that you stay within the limits of the Guardian that you identify during setup. I found the position mapping of the Guardian to be remarkably accurate, where the boundary defined didn’t shift slightly over time even over long periods of use; this is obviously integral to the safety of users. If, however, you start to breach the Guardian boundary, the onboard cameras provide the input for the Quest 2 to stitch together a camera feed of your environment, so you can see that couch you’re about to trip over. The Guardian sensitivity can be adjusted, and visual cues are provided based upon that sensitivity as you near the Guardian border.

Finally, the controllers. As a first-timer to the Quest hardware, what I found most fascinating was the ability the controllers had to sense my hand position. This goes beyond what angle I hold the controller or what buttons I’m pressing; they can also sense if my index or middle fingers are on the trigger (but not actually pressing it), or if my thumb is away from the keypad, and some games make use of this input.

It’s really an experience

I’ve said it for years about Apple products…experience is everything. Marketing for VR necessarily comes down to the experience it can provide you, which has to be more than the sum of its individual components to make it truly compelling. Processors, graphics, displays—those specs are important but are often secondary to your experience. So, here is how I would describe mine.

The headset is, as I said before, lightweight—and therefore very comfortable. The padding on the inside of the headset (which comes into contact with your face) is soft, and aside from getting a bit sweaty during more active content consumption, I can’t at all complain about the headset. And, it seems durable—as it was dropped multiple times by my kids during the putting-on and taking-off, and is no worse for wear. The controllers are likewise very comfortable to hold on to, and often times are the only thing I was holding on to while trying to maintain or regain my balance. Yes, VR messes with the senses, although I estimate that is a check in the ‘good’ column for something that is supposed to provide some alternate reality to our current one.

I found the game selection to be adequate and not too overpriced. I would like to see some more ‘included’ content, but I wouldn’t expect to buy a game system and not also have to buy some games. And because the games themselves are not overly graphic intensive, the download speed was pretty fast, so I could select a title, buy it, and play it within a matter of a minute or two.

Because it is a wireless product, it will only work so long before the battery needs to be charged. While I didn’t try connecting a mobile battery during use, I didn’t find the play duration to be disappointing. The reality is, putting screens that close to my eyes does quite a number on me physically, so a 90-minute play session is plenty before I also need to do a little recharging. When playing with others this may become a burden (as in, multiple players taking turns on one headset), but otherwise I was pleased with the battery life.

Content is where things get interesting. As I mentioned before, there was a decent selection of games; Beat Saber is a must-have, but there are leisurely games as well (like mini-golf). And the content doesn’t stop with just games—there is entertainment and educational content as well, from spots on National Geographic allowing you close access to awesome sights worldwide, to YouTube VR content that can put you up close to content creators. For me, probably the most exciting thing was the variety of content available beyond the games you might expect with VR (first-person shooters, tennis, boxing, etc). It will be exciting to see this develop in the next few years.

Glitch in the matrix

Performance was mostly flawless. In terms of speed, I at no point experienced any sort of lag or excess loading time. Where things got dodgy a time or two was in the distortion of content; sometimes my position within an environment would ‘skip’ (imagine the video version of a record player skipping). This slight and momentary distortion is very disorienting, and often times wreaks havoc on the content being played or watched.

Alternatively, maybe it’s an intentional glitch put in by the developers to give us that ‘glitch in the matrix’ vibe that we will one day rely on in our battle with our AI overlords.

One area where I can see a definite need for improvement is in the adjustment of the eyepieces. As I said before, I don’t think there’s a good reason why VR shouldn’t one day be able to correct near- and far-sightedness. While this may take a bit more development, it doesn’t seem a stretch that an expensive piece of technology should be able to adjust what a cheap and disposable piece of plastic that I put on my eye can do quite well. I’d also like a bit more adjustment when it comes to eyepiece spacing beyond the three ‘standard’ settings. And speaking of eyepieces, make sure you keep them clean—they are just like any other pair of lenses you put in front of your eyes, and a smudge can become very annoying.

The other development that is critical for VR going forward will be the inclusion of higher-quality displays. The 90Hz refresh on the Quest 2 is great, but also falls into Oculus’ category of ‘experimental’ for the time being. We need to find a way to strike a balance between higher pixel density and a screen that is not so physically taxing on your eyes. With more pixels comes the opportunity for more detailed content.

I mentioned the Guardian before, which is an integral part of the Oculus Quest 2. But imagine a Guardian that could adapt on its own, scanning your environment constantly and the changes in it (for instance, an unsuspecting family member walks into your play area and you accidentally punch them in the face). While my own experience was not that exciting, I did have a run in with a wall…or at least, my fist did. The Guardian looks for a two-dimensional outline on your floor to dictate the boundaries of a three-dimensional space, which is flawed in some absolute sense: consider ceiling fans. I recognize that this is likely a limitation of the technology and more than anything else a practical way to define a three-dimensional space. At least for now, be cautious when you draw your boundaries so that slight accidental breaches of the Guardian don’t result in you trying to bunch through a supporting beam in your living room.

Alright, I’m in

When the original Nintendo Wii was released, it was more novelty than anything else. It quickly became a party trick, and the games developed centered around bringing people together. I like that—and in some ways, I think the Oculus Quest 2 can fit well into that category. I enjoy this platform quite a bit, far more than I thought I would.

More than just me, my kids love it too—and it is one of those things that in this climate of pandemics and politics, seems to bring us together for some good old-fashioned fun. The Quest 2 provides a great way for all of us to take turns playing together, and thanks to the ability to wirelessly stream content to a nearby device, non-players can still be spectators. Add to that the up-and-coming availability of VR content beyond games, I can see this quickly becoming a more significant platform than it is today.

The Quest 2 comes in at a cool $299, which is an absolutely reasonable price for the experience that you get. The hardware is sturdy and well-built, the game content is engaging and fun, and the non-game content is just as exciting. There are certainly improvements that I’d like to see in future versions, be it screen tech, an automatic and adaptive Guardian (so you don’t have to draw it), and more mobility—but for what you get at this price point, you’d be hard-pressed to find something similarly exciting.

This product was provided by Best Buy and Oculus in exchange for an honest, unbiased review. The opinions expressed herein are solely that of the author and have not been reviewed or approved by any sponsors prior to posting.

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