The Living VR Headset: The Oculus Quest, 1 Year Review And Analysis

ANSHEL SAG

I was one of the few people that initially bought the Oculus Quest at its launch, around this time last year. Much like the Switch, I knew it was going to be a success well before it basically became unobtanium. The Quest represents the culmination of Facebook’s multi-year efforts in VR and is a product born out of many lessons learned from previous headsets like the Oculus Rift and Go . The Oculus Quest is also an evolving VR platform—many improvements have been made to the headset, almost entirely in software, since its launch which have significantly improved the user experience. In this review, I will talk about my first year’s worth of experience with the headset—all the things I have done with it and what improvements I think could be made. Additionally, I will discuss where VR and more specifically Oculus may go after this.

Specs

Since the Oculus Quest was the company’s third headset to date, the company has had a lot of practice with launching hardware and building a software ecosystem. However, the Quest marks the first time that the company combined all of its hardware and software capabilities into one headset. The Rift is PC-based with Touch controllers, and the self-contained Go features a mediocre 3-DoF controller and is limited in performance. The Quest looked impressive at launch, with a high-end smartphone chip serving as the performance engine of the headset. I was a little disappointed that Facebook opted for Qualcomm’s previous generation Snapdragon 835, instead of the 855 or 845, but I suspect the company had to go with the 835 in order to hit its price targets. I hope the next Oculus headset utilizes the Snapdragon XR2 that Qualcomm announced late last year because it has the potential to elevate the Quest into an entirely different performance category. That said, the Quest rounds out the middle tier of performance from Oculus, filling out the company’s lineup of first-generation headsets. This is where I believe Facebook will continue to push as the primary target of the company’s efforts as it delivers a PC-like experience, without the need of a PC.

Another complaint is that the Quest only has 4GB of RAM. I suspect that is what limits the Quest’s multi-tasking to a ‘beta’ feature that only allows two apps at a time. This is one of the features that was added to the Quest after launch, but I would like to see this expanded in the future to allow for more involved apps and more multi-tasking. RAM is cheap and the Quest uses smartphone-grade LPDDR4 right now, which is plentiful and comes standard in most phones today.

The Quest still ships in the same two configurations at, 64GB and 128GB, with the same price of $399 and $499, respectively. I don’t expect that the price will come down as the company has struggled to keep them in stock. These prices include the headset and two touch controllers. It was smart for the company to unify the controller scheme between the Rift and Quest—it makes porting titles from the Rift to Quest easier. I am personally not a huge fan of the fact that the touch controllers utilize a single AA battery—I would prefer for them to have rechargeable batteries, like all my other VR controllers. I’ve found out firsthand that the debate over removable vs rechargeable batteries gets people quite heated on Twitter. I do like that the Quest now has support for hand tracking as well. That way, if you forget or lose the controllers the headset is not completely useless (a problem with other standalone VR headsets I’ve tested). Hand tracking is another feature that was added post-launch. This is an interesting development because it enables game developers to theoretically create titles that use hand tracking instead of Touch controllers. For now, though, this feature is mostly limited to navigation around the UI and controlling simple apps.

The Quest features a 1400×1600 resolution display in each eye, which is quite good but not as high as some PC-tethered headsets. The displays are Pentile OLED, with a refresh rate of 72 Hz—this is unique, as most panels are 60 Hz or 90 Hz. 72 Hz is most likely an overclocked 60 Hz panel, but those 12 frames per second could mean a lot when it comes to improving judder. That said, I believe that Oculus needs to up this to at least 90 in the next generation (or higher) in order to be competitive—especially considering that the Quest can now be tethered to a PC with an Oculus Link cable, easily offering frame rates beyond 72 FPS.

Launch and availability

At the initial launch, I was able to grab a 128GB model from Amazon which took longer to sell out than the $100 cheaper 64GB model. They were in tight supply for a few months, which subsided around July of 2019, at which point virtually anyone that wanted a Quest could easily and readily get one. That all changed in November once Oculus started actively advertising the Oculus Quest. It has effectively been out of stock since then, and every time it is restocked, almost anywhere, it sells out within 24 hours. I criticized Oculus for underestimating this demand in an article earlier this year, and I hope the company learns a lesson for its next mass market headset. Yes, there is the whole COVID-19 situation to contend with, but the reality is that Facebook had an opportunity to anticipate demand and failed to. The company would have been in trouble anyway, but now it’s stuck in an even bigger hole because of COVID-19. The demand spiked and supply hasn’t kept up.

ANSHEL SAG

Overall Experience

My 128GB Oculus Quest arrived on launch day, May 21st. The setup process was incredibly easy, requiring only about a 5×5 foot area (though I used a 10×10 area for my setup). It required no extra cables or wires, and the built-in headphones did the job (though I did opt for a pair of Bose QC35s for additional immersion and isolation). Initially the Quest didn’t support Bluetooth audio, but that support is now in Beta (yet another feature added after launch). I recommend going wireless if you can—with certain apps that require a lot of arm movement, it’s very easy to get entangled.

I’ve now had the Oculus Quest for almost a whole year, which I think most people would agree is enough time to give something a thorough assessment. I would say that the overall experience was quite good. One of the big selling points was the Quest’s ease-of-use. While I absolutely love the performance, appearance and quality of my HTC Vive Pro, the PC VR setup requires you to turn on the TV (assuming the PC is already on), start-up SteamVR, put the headset on and turn on the controllers. With the Quest, you just put the headset on and you are ready to go. To drive a new technology towards success, reducing friction for the consumer is a must. I think the Quest really nailed it.

I enjoyed showing the Quest off to other people and making them put it on outside of the boundary of my user-configured VR space (also known as my living room) to witness the mixed reality view of the headset. Watching and hearing people walk into the VR play zone, demarked by the Oculus Guardian system’s mesh grid, is always super satisfying. They act like they have walked into the holodeck.

This is powered by Oculus’ SLAM algorithm, which ‘remembers’ certain spaces and rooms. It is able to determine where the floor is, what the surroundings are, and how to track the headset’s position within them in 6-DoF (degrees of freedom). Oculus’ tracking system, Oculus Insight can remember up to 5 different rooms and has experimental support for up to 4,000 square feet. The ability to remember multiple, large spaces makes the Quest look very promising for LBE VR applications as well. I am still waiting for the physical VR escape rooms powered by Quest—there’s already an app. Maybe once all this COVID business blows over.

I have used the Quest in many places—my bedroom, my living room and outdoors. The Quest does not do well in darker environments because the cameras must be able to see the objects they are looking at in order to determine what they are and how to track the headset’s position within that space. So, even though you are wearing a headset, you will need to keep the lights on. Additionally, I have used the Quest as an exercise tool in places where there is not a gym. Beat Saber was my go-to for cardio, in addition to things like pushups and crunches.

However, the most interesting place I was able to test the Quest was on a plane. Lots of people have wondered if it’s possible to use the Quest during air travel—VR would be great entertainment on long flights. I can confirm that the Quest does indeed work on planes, and I was able to play a few songs on Beat Saber with minimal arm movements. It helped that I was sitting in the bulkhead seat and had at least 3 or 4 feet of legroom in front of me, so a ‘seated or standing’ position was possible. I did not try standing up and walking around the plane as that would have probably gotten me in trouble.

One thing I did notice was that the Oculus Quest display resolution had some screen door effect when using many apps. That said, I forgot about it most of the time once I got engaged with the content. Additionally, I noticed a considerable amount of fixed foveated rendering with variable rate shading. What this means is that the Quest is only rendering the graphics at the highest resolution in the center of the screen and where your eye is in focus most of the time, while slowly tapering off the resolution into lower and lower quality to save on battery and improve performance. Unfortunately, this looks quite bad if you ever look away from the center of the screen—which does happen from time to time and can really break the feeling of immersion. Supposedly Oculus is working on a fix to improve this, but long term the real fix is dynamic foveated rendering with eye-tracking. Some of the Quest’s competitors already offer this, including HTC’s Vive Pro Eye, Acer’s StarVR One and Pico’s Neo 2 Eye (all powered by Tobii’s Spotlight technology).

In terms of battery life, I found that the headset easily lasts a few hours—one hour for aggressive use, and two hours of casual use on average. Still, it would definitely be nice to get more prolonged use out of it.  People will want their VR experiences to last longer, as they become more social and engaging. The headset itself charges pretty quickly, but I always make a point of plugging it back in after I use so it’s ready to go for next time. I was disappointed by the controllers’ battery life. One would expect them to last a few weeks, but under intense applications they really only last maybe a week. I would really like to see that improve. Additionally, on multiple occasions I had controllers die on me mid-game—it  would be great to get a warning when my controller battery is low so I can replace it before starting. For prolonged or aggressive use, the headset can also get a bit front-heavy and leave some lines on your forehead and cheeks and even cause some neck strain due to the headset’s weight. I discovered that headbands are a great way to avoid the forehead line, but I haven’t figured out the cheek lines quite yet.

When it comes to reliability, I’ve found that the Oculus Home UI is generally pretty stable and I rarely get any application crashes. Oculus usually saves your last app in memory so that you can re-launch it the next time you use the Quest and get right back into the action. However, I did run into one problem—the v12 update for the Oculus headset, which brought a lot of new and exciting features, bricked my headset. Thankfully, Oculus’ stock issues online didn’t affect my ability to get a replacement headset, which was sent me incredibly promptly. Oculus’ customer service was very responsive and helpful and I’m glad that I got my problem resolved quickly and painlessly. I do wish they would implement the ability to save progress in apps to the cloud, though. All my progress in Beat Saber’s campaign was lost, along with other things. Thankfully, my song pack and in-app purchases were saved so I don’t have to rebuy anything.

A Living Platform

I would say that the thing that really impressed me about the Oculus Quest was that over the course of the year it kept getting better. Since I bought mine, Oculus added hand tracking, Oculus Link and Bluetooth connectivity. These are all features that make the headset more versatile, add value and require little to no hardware changes to the headset. Yes, the Oculus Link does require a special cable to work, but that’s still a huge value compared to buying another headset to connect to your PC.

I think that as Facebook and Oculus continue to evolve the Quest platform, we will continue to see software improvements that extend the headset’s capabilities. That said, I do also think there’s a limit to the performance and features they can squeeze out of a chipset that is now three generations old. That’s especially true when you look at the AI performance of the Snapdragon 835 versus the Snapdragon 865 (the basis of the XR2). I think AI performance will be one of those measurements that gives headsets more headroom for additional features and performance. For example, hand-tracking on the Quest is almost entirely powered by a combination of CV and AI, which enables it without causing any tracking issues or false positives.

Room For Improvement

I think the first thing that I would like to see Oculus improve is the performance and battery life, which there is usually a trade-off between. However, if you have a vastly more powerful chipset like the Snapdragon XR2, you can get both. This is due to the smaller process node (7nm vs 10nm), AI performance (great performance per watt) and a much more power efficient and higher performance GPU. Displays are also a big factor on battery life and I really hope that Oculus can get its hands on a less-hungry 90 Hz panel. Another thing that could help improve performance and battery life would be the addition of eye-tracking. We know Facebook and Oculus have the technology in-house and can do it, but it really comes down to cost and benefit. I believe that we are reaching the point where eye tracking is a necessity for next-gen headsets, especially when you consider all the benefits of eye-tracking to performance, battery life and security. With eye-tracking you can also automatically calibrate the IPD for people’s eyes, automatically authenticate different users, and authorize payments.

I would also like to see Oculus implement Wi-Fi 6 (or possibly even Wi-Fi 6e) in the next version of the Quest headset. Then it could operate on a mostly uncrowded channel, enable wireless streaming from the PC and deliver overall better download and upload speeds. Since the Quest and many of its apps are dependent on a constant and reliable Internet connection, better signal strength and faster throughput should help to improve long term battery life and performance (especially for activities such as streaming 8K 360 video).

In terms of comfort, I would love to see Oculus do some better balancing of the headset’s weight to enable a more comfortable long-term wear. Perhaps something like what Microsoft did with the Hololens 2—embedding the battery in the back of the headset, offsetting some of the neck and overall head strain, and hopefully eliminating the face lines. I do not think the Quest is too heavy, but it wouldn’t hurt to make it lighter. I believe that more battery capacity could be possible to improve the overall battery life, but that adds weight—it’s a tradeoff. Hopefully battery energy density has improved since the Quest’s original design, in order to allow for more battery capacity without adding much, if any weight.

Other than these things, the Oculus Quest is perhaps the closest we’ve gotten to a perfect VR headset experience for the mass market.  The price is right, and so are the features and user experience. Considering how many things Oculus got right with the Quest (after learning from many mistakes), it really is such a shame that it hasn’t been able to fulfill demand for the last 6 months. While it’s a great sign that the Quest is selling more than Facebook or Oculus expected, it’s not good for the VR ecosystem to prolong the time it takes for people to get headsets in their hands. It could disincentivize developers from developing content as quickly, in turn hindering user growth. Facebook did recently report $297 million in revenue from its ‘other’ category, which includes mostly Oculus business hardware and software sales. At an over $1B a year annual run rate, it is starting to become a serious business. Still, it pales in comparison to Sony’s PSVR business. Though Sony had a considerable head start, it had sold over 5 million headsets as of this January.

Key takeaways & the future of Oculus

There is plenty of interesting content, both gaming and non-gaming, on the Oculus Home store, and more is added every day. Right now, VR developers should consider the Oculus Quest their #1 target platform—it is flexible, portable and does not require any wires. It is not perfect for every application, but it is fairly good for most of them.

In spite of all of the things that Oculus did right, its failure to anticipate demand and market the headset correctly is a big problem that needs to be fixed. There is a run on VR headsets right now, largely because of social distancing and quarantine orders. People are finally starting to understand the benefits of VR as a method of virtual communication with one another. I can personally say that out of the many Zoom and Teams meetings I’ve had over the past few weeks, none of them were as engaging as the one I had in VR. Facebook and Oculus’s struggles to keep the Quest in stock means that they are missing an opportunity to significantly grow their user base.

My expectation is that we’ll probably get a new Oculus Quest in 2021 with improved hardware and software—hopefully with eye tracking and AR capabilities. In addition to that, I expect that the new Quest will probably cost more due to the higher performance parts. It will probably start at $499 or $599 while the original or an improved/cost reduced version of the original Quest will like remain available and in production for those who were waiting for it to drop down within the $399 price range or lower. The Quest is the VR platform that Facebook has always wanted to build. It allows the company to fully control the hardware and software environments and squeeze the absolute most performance out of the platform. The Quest is a winner, and I was really hoping it would have a break-out year in 2020. We’ll see if that comes to pass, considering everything that’s going on in the world and the sheer uncertainty it brings. That said, I still believe firmly that VR is the future and the Quest will be one of the big drivers determining where that future goes.