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The best part of Oculus Quest: It makes the hard stuff look easy

Why the secret of mainstream VR may be a near-instant setup

The Oculus Quest might seem like a modest step forward to the casual onlooker: it’s VR, minus the wires. But the product is more complicated than its simple silhouette suggests. A portable, self-contained headset that doesn’t require a PC or sensors to deliver room-scale head and hand tracking in VR required dramatic leap forward from the Oculus team in a short amount of time.

Since the original Oculus’ release in 2016, the VR company has made a number of incremental technological streps that have led them here. Jason Rubin, vice president of VR/AR partnerships and content for Facebook, is confident those changes will impress the headset’s early reviewers and audience. That what looks simple will feel significant.

The hardware will be released on May 21, and pre-orders were opened today. You can already read our full review of the product itself, and I’ve been able to use the hardware in my own home, with no restrictions, for the past week.

The next generation of portable VR

I agree with Rubin’s assessment after spending so much time with the hardware. The Quest is an amazing piece of engineering, and it’s hard to believe that it’s able to deliver such relatively high visual quality and imperceptible tracking latency using only the self-contained, and somewhat aging, Snapdragon 835 chip. For reference, that’s the same system on a chip found in a Google Pixel 2 smartphone.

“We’ve implemented many optimizations from the software stack to the hardware to give Quest the best possible performance,” Sean Liu, director of hardware product management, told Polygon. “For instance, an active cooling system allows Quest to run at much higher clock rates for sustained periods, letting us get more power out of the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 SoC.”

The hardware team even had to get creative with how the controllers connected to the headset, since it was so important to minimize latency.

“To achieve this, we invented a completely new custom wireless protocol that allowed us to reduce latency for the controllers to a lower level than could be achieved by using Bluetooth or WiFi — in fact, to a level as low as 2 milliseconds,” Liu explained.

But most players won’t care about the engineering that went into the Quest, what’s important is that it’s both fun and easy to use. And that’s where the Quest really shines: It’s completely self-contained, so it doesn’t need to be connected to a PC. It requires no external sensors, even though its controllers deliver six degrees of freedom, allowing you to manipulate objects in 3D space just as you would with a traditional Rift or HTC Vive.

You can stand in one place or sit down to play many games if you’re short on space, but room-scale VR is also available, as long as you have a minimum of 6.5 feet by 6.5 feet of unobstructed floorspace. Or you can switch between those options any time you’d like. That ease of use and nearly instant setup was the entire point, according to Rubin.

“We are competing with everybody’s entertainment time right now,” he said. “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.”

Much of the simplicity of the system comes from the Guardian system, which is a safety mechanism that shows you a virtual, wireframe barrier when you get close to stepping outside of your usable VR space. The Quest will even take you out of VR and show you the world around you through the system’s passthrough cameras if you step completely outside of it. Creating a new Guardian setup is as easy as looking down and tracing the area with the controller; the entire process takes around 10 seconds.

“Even if your Guardian has changed and you moved to a different room, it takes absolutely no time to paint Guardian on the floor and go,” Rubin pointed out. “It’s just not a big deal anymore.”

This change makes getting into VR so much easier that Oculus will no long offer any products that use external sensors, in fact. You may be able to track down an original Rift on the secondary market, but from here on out the Rift S and the Oculus Quest will be the standard Rift products offered for the full gaming experience, along with the more limited Oculus Go and Gear VR.

This is a big shift, but wireless, self-contained room-scale VR brings its own challenges. Rubin pointed out that it’s hard to tell how players will react to being completely untethered from the PC. Some people get a little too enthusiastic with their movements, while others take even more time to get comfortable moving around with the headset on.

“Sometimes you put people in wireless VR and they’re flying all over the room,” he said. “And thank god we have the Guardian system because they’re suddenly untethered, and it’s so freeing. Other people use the weight of the cable to tell them where north is, if you will, where their PC is. And without that, they feel a little bit naked, especially if they are used to playing with the cable, so they’re a little bit more conservative with what they’re doing. There were a lot of surprises.”

I asked Rubin why the review embargo lifted so much earlier than the Quest’s May 21 release date, and his answer was blunt.

“We get more sales,” Rubin told Polygon. “We believe in these products. We believe the reviews are going to be good. If you believe the reviews are going to be good, you want them out there as soon as possible ... At the end of the day, anybody who holds [reviews] until launch day is worried.”

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