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a white woman with orange hair wearing an Oculus Quest headset and looking to the right as she holds two Oculus Touch controllers

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Facebook is making it harder to recommend Oculus Quest

The right VR headset comes with a big red flag

Photo: James Bareham/Polygon

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One of the biggest challenges of buying virtual reality hardware is how quickly things are getting better.

It’s something I’ve struggled with while reviewing controllers and headsets, and it’s something that makes me wince when I go back and read past writing about products that ended up being obsolete in a matter of months.

The Vive Pro was an amazing, spare-no-expense VR headset when it launched at $1,100, but the Valve Index was released a little over a year later, included a number of jumps forward, and “only” cost $999. This keeps happening, year after year: The new hotness gets a little hotter, and then a few months later, something less expensive and better comes out.

The tech is moving at a ridiculous pace. That’s good news for enthusiasts, but it also means that it’s nearly impossible to find a good time to jump in and buy a headset that won’t seem like yesterday’s news before you remove it from the packaging.

But then the Oculus Quest was released. I guess I’ll just come out and say it: Buy an Oculus Quest. This is the one you should take a risk on. This is the one that finds that magical combination of hardware and software.

And Oculus continues to make it better, at that same surreal rate. Except this time, you don’t have to keep buying hardware to get the improvements, because they’re all handled by software updates. If you’re confused by your VR options this holiday season, don’t be. Just get a Quest.

This is why.

The Oculus Quest is currently the best of all worlds

The Oculus Quest is a $399 stand-alone VR headset that doesn’t need to be tethered to a computer or connected to a phone, and it comes with two Touch controllers that offer six degrees of freedom without the need for external sensors. The game list in the Oculus Store is like a best-of collection from the tethered Oculus Rift, and while each game has received a significant visual downgrade to run on a self-contained system, the frame rate and tracking are close to perfect.

Your brain doesn’t care about losing all those polygons in the port; you still feel like you’re there. And without any cables or sensors to worry about, you’re truly free to spin around, crawl around on the floor, or make any other movement option that suits the game. You feel free when using the Quest, in a way you won’t while using a tethered headset.

“Developing for the [Quest] is great because between all the platforms, it has the smallest amount of design constraints,” Trevor Blom, technical director at Vertigo Games, told Polygon. “This is mostly because the Quest is trackerless and tetherless, while still delivering similar or even better results than the other platforms. It drives us, as developers, to take on the challenges the computational power of the device brings, especially because of the opportunities that open up with the tetherless and trackerless device.”

Optimizing an existing game to run on Quest is a brutal, extensive process. You’re talking about a system that has the challenge of tracking the movements of the player and the controllers, while also rendering the in-game world at a frame rate high enough, with latency low enough, that it just feels like you’re seeing something real, not the insides of a video game. And it has to do all of that with the internals of what amounts to a midrange smartphone these days, albeit one with a lot of modifications to allow all this to work.

But here’s the secret: Despite the huge visual downgrade that happens in these games — you can watch the trailer for the original Arizona Sunshine above versus the trailer for the Quest version below to see the difference — the games feel exactly the same when you play them. What’s important is the illusion of being somewhere else, not the number of polygons your hardware is pushing around. The Quest makes that illusion effective.

The visual differences melt away after a few minutes, unless you go looking for them again. The team at Vertigo even started the port thinking it was going to have to make changes to the game’s actual design, before realizing that wasn’t the case. As long as the basic feel of the game — of being outside in Arizona, surviving against waves of zombies — translated to the player, it was still the same Arizona Sunshine.

“As long as we could get that feeling across, the fidelity of the graphics [wasn’t] all too important anymore,” Blom said. “We also learned ourselves, and through play tests, that once we had the important features working, we just felt ‘in’ the game world and simply forgot about the platform differences.”

That’s why it’s not the technology that makes the Quest such an easy product to recommend; it’s the joy of playing games like Beat Saber, Space Pirate Trainer, or Arizona Sunshine on a system that doesn’t tie you to external hardware and can be thrown into a backpack and taken anywhere. It’s portable, completely stand-alone, room-scale VR, and there’s currently nothing else as good on the market.

Radial-G Proteus is another port from tethered headsets for which the developer had to make visual compromises, but the high-speed racing game feels like a roller coaster when played on Quest. It’s thrilling to play and stunning to look at, despite the relatively simple nature of the visuals. But you’re there, in this amazing environment, racing for your life. There are too many good Oculus Quest games to list right now, but so far I’ve discussed some of the experiences that really sold the system to me.

Now, though, I’m going to take a moment to bring up how good the Quest versions of I Expect You to Die, The Climb, and Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes are as well. If you’re already into VR, many of these games come with cross-buy support, so you only have to pay for one copy to play on your Rift as well as your Quest, should you have both headsets.

Not only does the Quest deliver a VR experience that’s as effective as tethered systems that cost much more and require their own gaming PCs to run, it only takes about 30 seconds to put on the Quest, get the straps adjusted, and set up a new playing space — no matter where you are.

You can get in and out of experiences ridiculously quickly, without the system being fussy. That’s why my Valve Index tends to be dusty, while I play my Quest daily. Oculus has finally made VR nearly as easy to play as ... well, as everything else you’re used to doing for fun. Which, again, is the entire point.

“We are competing with everybody’s entertainment time right now,” Facebook’s Jason Rubin told me in a previous interview. “You can put on Netflix, you can go play PlayStation, you can go read a book, you could do any one of a thousand things. VR should not take half an hour or 15 minutes to get set up. [...] That’s why we thought the most important thing to tackle first was [getting rid of] those external sensors and fidgetiness of setting it up every time.”

But that was an interview that took place near the launch of the Quest. It’s what Facebook and Oculus have done since then that further cements the Quest as the one VR platform you should buy.

Quest keeps getting better

Oculus Quest was supposed to be the portable, stand-alone VR offering from Oculus, while the Rift S was supposed to be the power-user product for those who wanted their VR games to look as good as possible. The two products worked well together, and served different markets.

But then Oculus added the ability to connect your Quest to your gaming PC to play games designed for the Rift S, and all but destroyed its own market for a second, tethered headset. The Quest can do just about everything the Rift S can do, but the Rift S is never going to turn into a stand-alone headset.

Suddenly the Quest became a much, much better deal. This capability is still in beta, and can be a little twitchy, but even when the feature first launched it felt like the impossible was happening. VR had gone through another generational leap, but it was one anyone could take part of through a software update, not by buying a whole new headset.

An Oculus Quest with a USB-C cable connected
Oculus Link lets you connect your Quest to your PC through a single USB-C cable to use it just like a Rift S.
Photo: Ben Kuchera/Polygon

And Oculus wasn’t done there. The latest update added the ability to control basic functions of the Quest with nothing but your bare hands, without having to find, pick up, or use the controllers in any way. This feature is also in beta, and is likewise shaky from time to time, but it works. It adds yet another layer of convenience to the Quest, and it doesn’t cost a thing. The Quest once again got a little better, while Rift S players still have the system they paid for but not much else. Heck, you can get a Rift S by Jan. 6 if you order now, but Quest headsets are currently sold out until Feb. 13.

So the march of progress — the issue that makes each headset seem obsolete less than a year after it’s released — doesn’t seem to be hitting the Quest nearly as hard due to how many features Oculus has just gone ahead and added through software, without raising the price of the system. The Quest hardware, as a platform, is much stronger now — with many more features and a much better game selection — than it was at launch, and none of those updates cost players a dime (excluding the possible need for a new USB-C cable for Oculus Link).

So why shouldn’t you buy a Quest?

Those are the reasons you should get a Quest if you’re interested in VR. The game selection is top-notch; the lack of wires makes for a much more comfortable time playing those games, without worrying about tripping over anything; the portable nature of the system makes it easy to bring places and share with others; it takes less than a minute to set up; and it’s completely self-contained, with a rapidly growing list of features. That should be enough to make Quest the best VR platform on the market.

So why shouldn’t you buy a Quest? Facebook. And the company is making it even harder to recommend the headset with the forced integration of your Facebook account. These tweets from Facebook explain the changes:

The company isn’t shy about collecting and using data you generate by using Oculus headsets, either.

“As we’ve previously shared, when you log into Oculus using your Facebook account, Facebook will use information related to your use of VR and other Facebook products to provide and improve your experience,” states the official blog post announcing the changes. “This information is also used to show you personalized content, including ads. For example, we might show you recommendations for Oculus Events you might like, ads about Facebook apps and technologies, or ads from developers for their VR apps.”

The response to this announcement from the VR community has been almost universally negative, based on the reactions on social media. Developers and enthusiasts are pointing out the very real safety and privacy concerns this introduces to the platform:

I struggled with writing this story, and I finally figured out why: The Quest platform is so obviously superior to anything else in VR at the moment that the concept of this story was easy to think about, but the long-term repercussions of Quest becoming a mainstream product scare me. I don’t trust Facebook; the company has violated the trust of its users too many times to count.

We also know that Facebook gathers information about folks even if they don’t have an account. So here we are, with great video games and great hardware being owned and controlled by the one company I would want to keep as far away from the technology as possible.

This pains me as a VR enthusiast. Someone finally made the VR headset I’ve always dreamed about, but there’s no way to discuss it, much less recommend it, without also bringing up Facebook’s long, sordid history of misusing the personal data of its customers (not to mention its current role in spreading political misinformation for profit).

The question is where that leaves us with this current recommendation, and I can’t answer that for you. Do you feel comfortable strapping Facebook hardware on your face and sending the company usage information in order to take part in the most enjoyable VR experience that currently exists?

Using the Quest is much better than I expected VR to be at the end of 2019, but the implications of doing so are sadly just as dystopian as we had all feared. But at least we’re not tripping over cables while handing yet another aspect of our lives to Mark Zuckerberg.

Update (Aug. 18): Facebook has updated its policy on requiring the use of Facebook accounts to log into the Oculus Quest and Oculus Rift family of products, a change which is now addressed in this opinion.

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