This week’s installment is brought to you by a combination of exhaustion, boredom and technology-fueled experiences that, for a change, helped lift my spirits. In short, I had a
YOLO moment, went all out on escapism and got myself an Oculus Quest 2 for my birthday. Nearly a month in advance, too, so I’ve actually been tinkering with it for quite some time now.
The VR Spiral
I had tried a couple of VR headsets in the past, but the Quest was the one I had my eye on because it was the first moderately decent standalone device, with the combined genius of John Carmack and Michael Abrash behind it (which immediately put it head and shoulders above the competition in my book).
Add to that an Android-based platform that I could target without any fuss from Unity (or, as of now, Godot), pretty decent WebXR support and arguably the single largest community in the space, and it was pretty much already at the top of my list as a nice gadget to buy by this time last year.
Which, to be honest, was (and still is) a major put-off.
But being stuck at home since January has taken a toll. The pandemic has a way of changing people’s priorities, and in my case it has exacerbated the need to do something fun every now and then, either as a reaction to the overbearing feeling of impending doom or to hours upon hours of work, stuck at home and without much in terms of (creative) outlets and inspiration.
And for the past few months I have increasingly (and uncharacteristically) told myself “I want to experience this, dammit” every time I glimpsed Beat Saber or Superhot, and after this summer’s gaming escapade and the obvious realization that we were going to be stuck at home for quite a few months yet, I started thinking that, all things considered, this might actually be a good opportunity to dip my toes in VR.
I still have a Facebook account (that I hardly ever use, since I moved away from Facebook login on everything, including Instagram2) so… One evening the week after it launched I took a deep breath, sold some of my
MSFT stock and ordered one.
For science, you know.
The Good Bits
The thing is lighter, sturdier and much less of a hassle than previous headsets I’ve tried before, and a comfortable fit for me. I tried (and failed) to get the Elite Strap with a battery, but (so far at least) I’ve been able to use it for satisfactory lengths of time.
Which isn’t saying much seeing that the longest may have been a whole hour on my actual birthday (and only then because I took the day off), but both comfort and battery life seem adequate so far.
And there have been other niceties:
- I had much less trouble with inter-pupillary distance than I expected (one of the presets worked perfectly for me).
- Wearing glasses (even given my high myopia prescription) wasn’t a problem (for me or my kids), other than my glasses’ lenses fogging in colder evenings, especially when I moved around a lot–and believe me, VR can turn out to mean a lot of exercise you weren’t expecting to have (which, in our present circumstances, turns out to be an interesting side benefit).
- The visual and auditory experience is quite good, considering the kind of hardware involved (especially with the recent upgrade, which bumps the refresh rate to 90Hz). Hardcore gamers are going to rant on about PC VR being far superior, etc., but to be honest I don’t care–in terms of bang for the buck, graphics quality is pretty good, and I think I can safely say that it will only be worth upgrading when we get twice the resolution on a standalone device.
- The games turned out to be a lot of fun. Besides Beat Saber and Superhot I stumbled upon Mission: ISS (which doesn’t have stellar graphics but is pretty amazing), Echo VR (clearly influenced by Ender’s Game) and Rez Infinite (based on the only game that I would love to go back and play on a PlayStation 2, and the reason I never sold the console), and with those five titles I’m set for months.
- Live streaming to a Chromecast (or a desktop browser, as of this week) works great, albeit at the expense of battery life.
- Although I haven’t written anything of my own yet, there are plenty of WebXR and Godot samples out there, as well as cubic acres of 3D video content for that extra bit of escapism (besides the usual vertigo-inducing silliness, there is a fair amount of sightseeing to be done here).
What Isn’t Quite There Yet
However, it’s still far from perfect, and I’ve already compiled a list of annoyances:
- VR Video is still unaccountably blurry, even on recent productions (of which there is a steady stream inside the Oculus content browser). At the stated hardware resolution, you’d expect that 5K video playback wasn’t so fuzzy or with so many artifacts, and I don’t know it it is a matter of software tuning or content encoding (it certainly isn’t a bandwidth issue, since you can save and playback videos to the device and I’ve tried some that way). In contrast, playing regular video from Plex via the browser (there’s no app for the Quest, alas) is plenty good enough and somewhat convincing as an extra-large TV screen, so I’m curious as to why VR videos are so crappy.
- There are too many different apps promoting either the dumbest possible thing (watching videos while “sitting” in different settings) or the most overwrought social ones (like shared live events and “experiences”). Both emphasize inviting along your Facebook friends, which I most definitely have no interest in (funnily enough, only one of my friends has a Quest).
- The social features are pretty much useless, and most of the traditional Android sharing functionality was completely kneecapped in favor of half-baked Facebook integration (it’s the only social network you can share snapshots and recordings to).
- The most fundamental social experience (sharing the device with your family) is just not there, because it has no multi-user support whatsoever. And when it does, it’s likely to require a Facebook account, which is not going to happen as far as my kids are concerned. So be prepared to have hassles with game scores, progress, saves, etc. in a family context.
- You get a lot of “junk” notifications, both on the companion app and inside the headset. The usual attempts to upsell apps and content, possible “friends” you may have come across while exploring shared spaces (i.e., “randos” that Facebook thinks you “met”), occasional (actual) friend activity, etc. I’ve been meaning to switch all of those off, but there seem to be some built-in limitations around that.
And this is, for me, the only real issue with the Quest–its Facebook-centricity.
I would get a lot more mileage from, say, being able to share things directly on Twitter (which I probably can now, indirectly, thanks to the latest browser update this week), or from having better third-party integration.
I don’t want to share photos or recordings solely on Facebook. And the emphasis on “shared experiences” with Facebook “friends” is a constant put-off, that, to be honest, is crippling the thing’s potential, and a possible harbinger of things to come: I just want (preferably single-player) games, they want me as a content generator for their “shared” experiences.
You can work around it the hard way and do moderately stupid things like running Slack in the Oculus browser, if you really want to–I did it to check notifications and share a couple of videos, and it seems to work fine, but is completely over the top.
Given my interest in tinkering with the device, of course I went and installed SideQuest as soon as I could (actually, just this week, which was the first time I plugged it in to anything other than the charger), and made a beeline for the (very well done) Quake and Quake 2 ports, which became fully functional after I dug out the original
These work very well indeed, and I have been making my way through the Quake 2 single-player campaign (which I never actually played, given that most of the time I spent playing any sort of
id game was on online servers) and tinkering with various demos–including the stock Godot sample for the Quest, which I hope to have time (someday) to start hacking into.
That demo in particular is quite feature complete and seems to cover everything the headset can do, even to the point of including a minimal Beat Saber clone written in
So, given time, I think I have something to entertain me (and the kids) over the next few months. If peering into these other worlds can help take our minds off the pandemic for a few hours a week, I think it will be enough return on investment.
Yes, it takes me a long time to follow up on some things. But at the time I started considering my options the only game in town were hideously overpriced PC-tethered headsets. ↩︎