There are some days that make us want to escape reality. And it could be said that there's no better place to do that than a conference dedicated entirely to virtual reality (VR).
This week saw the fifth occurrence of Oculus Connect: Facebook's annual VR conference. And while this year was a bit skimpy on flashy product announcements, it did see the debut of the latest in the company's line of VR headsets, the Oculus Quest.
A natural skeptic, I wondered what made the Quest so special. What merited its $399 price tag (as opposed to the $199 Go, an earlier wireless Oculus headset)? And why did Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg describe it as "just wonderful" during the event's opening keynote?
FB has been prototyping this for a while under the code name Project Santa Cruz. Now it’s an official consumer product.— Kurt Wagner (@KurtWagner8) September 26, 2018
“It’s just wonderful,” Zuckerberg says https://t.co/CJbZrTIAkE
To find out, I decided to take it for a spin.
The Oculus Quest Experience
Whenever I try a new VR headset, I immediately have to warn the person running the demo that I historically get motion sickness from the technology.
I'm not alone (that's probably why they keep a bowl of ginger candies at the demo stations) but with the Oculus's two existing headsets, the Rift and the Go, I've had to end the demonstrations after only a few minutes.
But the gentleman running this demo, Thomas, told me that this experience might be different. "A lot of people have told me that," he said, "and then tell me they don't have that experience with the Quest."
Sure, Thomas. I'll believe that when I see it.
Oculus Quest controllers
As I put on the headset and controllers, and the game commenced, two things were immediately apparent to me: 1) how much more intuitive the hand controls felt, and 2) how much more realistic the visuals seemed.
The game was Superhot: an almost dystopian-like scenario in an airport setting, where the player has to destroy her enemies (which come in the form of opaque red, mannequin-like creatures) by punching them, or grabbing and throwing whatever nearby objects she can find at them.
It felt less like I was in a game -- and more like I could actually walk around the environment portrayed, duck for cover, and hide when my enemies where coming for me (I was sweating by the time my demo was over). Throwing virtual clay pots at my adversaries felt quite natural -- so much, Thomas told me at the end of my seven minutes, I won the game.
The coolest part about this game in particular was how it forced me to slow down. The faster the player moves, it turns out, the faster the enemies move toward her. Not only was it actually fun for a non-gaming-enthusiast like myself, but it was also a bit of an exercise in self-moderation.
Even better: No motion sickness.
But what was to explain for these three stark distinctions -- the ease of the controls, the natural feel of the environment and movement through the game, and the lack of motion sickness? What differentiated my Oculus Quest experience from those with the Go and Rift?
To find out, I spoke with Allison Berliner, a product marketing manager for the Oculus Quest, and Andrea Schubert, the company's product communications lead.
The Tech Behind the Experience
First of all, I had to know: Why was my motion sickness non-existent while using the Quest?
Berliner explained that it all comes down to Oculus Insight: the headset's four wide-angled sensors, which understand the user's physical environment, and where she is within that space.
"The tracking is super accurate and super reliable," Berliner said, "and that's why it feels really comfortable."
I wondered if that had something to do with the green grid that would pop up whenever I was about to crash into a wall. It did.
As it turns out, the folks at Oculus were able to "tell" the headset and the game what that physical player environment looked like through a system called Guardian, which lets users know when they're about to step out of the game's bounds.
The Oculus boundary system. Source: Oculus
And once the Oculus Quest ships this spring, users will be able to dictate their own environments in the same way.
Then what's to explain for the natural feeling of the movement? I asked Berliner if it had something to do with the somewhat elusive concept of "six degrees of freedom" (6DOF): the ability of a single, physical body to move freely throughout a three-dimensional space.
"Exactly!" she told me. "The reason it feels really fluid and free is because you have the six degrees of freedom, which is all about the kinds of movements you can do while you're being tracked" by the VR platform.
Why the Oculus Quest Is a Game-Changer
Since the physical and emotional experience of using the Quest was so saliently different from those I had with other headsets -- no motion sickness, intuitive movement, and actual fun -- I wondered how else it might be put to use. Could this platform be a game-changer for those in marketing or non-gaming sectors?
"We're seeing a lot of interesting use cases for VR in general -- for healthcare, for education, for training," Berliner said. "I think it'll be great to see how the same partners and consumers using the Oculus Go and Oculus Rift for those other industries can do with the Oculus Quest."
The area of healthcare was of particular interest. With the ease of movement on the Oculus Quest, perhaps it could be used for things like rehabilitation or injury recovery.
It reminded me of something that a gentleman named Steve from DrashVR -- which develops educational programs and curricula in VR -- told me on day one of Oculus Connect.
"You can cram a lot more information that's 'learning by accident' or 'learning by play' when it's in VR," he said. "That's the feedback I've heard first-hand: that people can learn more from 10 minutes of VR than in a semester of classes."
So if VR for educational purposes could be that effective on earlier, less precise platforms, was their potential on the Quest even greater, especially with such freedom of movement?
"We're all really interested to see how Oculus Quest changes not only how people play games and people build games," Berliner said, "but also how people learn and communicate, and connect with each other."
Kind of like reenacting Gettysburg, without actually visiting the battlefield?
Berliner laughed. "Virtual field trips are super exciting."
But as admittedly remarkable as the Quest experience is, I did wonder if it was enough to make VR go mainstream. As Zuckerberg himself acknowledged on day one, the company is less than 1% of its way to the goal of getting one billion people in VR.
So what will make VR go mainstream? Ask Berliner, and she'll tell you -- it's offering options to all users, no matter which industries they're in.
"The combination of completing this first generation of products means that now we have a great set and a great portfolio," she said. "Anybody who wants to do something in VR should be able to find the product for them."
So there's the marketing lesson -- not just the principle of offering options for your audience, but in a way to leverage VR for your overall strategy. What does your audience want to do in VR, or where could VR enhance an already existing experience, and how can you create that experience?
Berliner encouraged leaning into the narrative -- and Oculus's own credo -- of breaking down distance barriers. Put the user somewhere they want to be, she emphasized, especially when they can't get there without your help.
"It comes down to our vision of defying distance. There are moments when you just can't be [somewhere]," she said. "That's where virtual reality can play such a huge role."