Facebook has a bold new plan for bringing virtual reality to the masses.
Facebook currently sells the Rift S to players who want a higher-end virtual reality experience powered by their gaming PC, alongside Oculus Quest, which is a less powerful, but standalone and portable, VR headset. But both products will be taken from the market by spring of 2021, leaving only one option: the just-announced Quest 2 hardware.
So how did a company that in the past has released the Rift and Rift S tethered headsets, as well as the Gear VR, Oculus Go, and Quest portable headsets, decide to throw all its eggs into this single basket?
It wasn’t a decision made all at once, and in many ways the move to bring the company’s standalone and tethered headsets together into a single product line mirrors what Nintendo has successfully done with Nintendo Switch: No matter where or how you want to play, you only need one device.
Here’s how it happened.
More expensive, and yet worse
The decision to offer only one headset was made while the Quest 2 was in development, during the time when the team was trying to figure out what should be included in the final hardware, and what their goals for the system would be.
The virtual reality team at Facebook wasn’t just focused on one product at a time though, and discussions were also beginning around what they should launch as the next Rift headset to update the now-aging Rift S hardware. That’s the rhythm Oculus has kept for a while: Both portable and tethered VR headsets were frequently updated, and you’d have to choose if you wanted something that offered the power of your gaming PC, or a product that’s simple to use on its own.
The problem was that both products, in broad strokes, were very similar in those early discussions. “We realized [the specs we were looking for] were effectively already in this product, [the Quest 2],” Quest product manager Rangaprabhu Parthasarathy told Polygon.
They knew they could make a tethered PC VR headset look different, but the guts would be about the same, especially if they wanted to keep the price point similar to past headsets, or even lower it as they had for the Quest 2.
And that second part was important. The team also didn’t want to just increase the raw specs of the product past a certain point to chase the high-end market, since accessibility was at the front of their minds.
“We are very clear that the motivation for Oculus in the space, for Facebook in the space, is to make VR available to as many people as possible,” Parthasarathy explained. That meant finding ways to lower the price and make jumping into VR less complicated, not more. And since the specs for their ideal tethered headset began to look more and more like the specs that were already in the Quest 2, and as the Oculus Link function itself improved, they made the decision to simplify the entire line down to one VR headset.
There was also the very weird circumstance that Facebook could continue to make the first Quest, an inferior product by most metrics, but it would have to be priced higher than the Quest 2 to make up for its higher cost of production. Not only is the Quest 2 smaller and lighter, with screens that offer a higher refresh rate and resolution, it’s also priced $100 less, and it’s cheaper for Facebook to manufacture.
Why would an older, less capable product be more expensive to make and sell? According to Parthasarathy, it comes down to the price of components, which become more expensive and less optimal when they’re at the end of their lifetime.
“Four gigs of RAM is one of those things where a lot of people are not making four gigs of RAM anymore,” he told Polygon. “So that’s actually an expensive part in comparison to building six gigs of RAM.”
The same goes for Qualcomm’s Snapdragon XR2 chip, a Quest 2 component that’s more powerful than the 825 chip that went into the original Quest. That first chip is also being made in lower quantities now that everyone is moving onto the next big thing, and is therefore less cost effective.
“And overall, the design of an older product is typically less optimized,” Parthasarathy said. “We have learned so much from making Quest that has gone into optimizing our factory lines, optimizing everything about this product, that it’s more ... I wouldn’t say easier, but once we hit our strides in manufacturing, this product is easier and faster, and it’s in many ways more optimal for us to churn out a new product.”
Since the Quest 2 was designed, for production to ramp up quickly to hit demand, it didn’t make sense to keep production lines making one version that was worse and more expensive, and another that was better and less expensive. One had to go.
Facebook could also have released a new tethered PC VR headset to update the Rift S, but the specs and design would so closely match the Quest 2 anyway, it seemed like a waste of time, especially with the improvements made to Oculus Link, the software that allows the Quest line of products to connect to a gaming PC or laptop to play tethered games. Soon, new customers won’t have to worry about which version of the hardware to buy; they’ll just have to decide whether to spend the $299.99 to get it all.
It seems like a smart play, especially after spending so much time with Quest 2 getting ready for the review. Oculus Link is a lot less touchy these days, and the software is set to leave beta later this year. It only needs a single USB 3.0 C cable to work, and Oculus sells an official 15-foot, USB 3.2 Gen 1 Type-C cable on its site for $79.99 if you want to play it safe (or you can check to see if any cables you already own are compatible).
But even now, before the software is finished, Quest 2 provides the simplest way to connect a VR headset to a PC that I’ve ever seen — one cable! — and provides an experience that’s remarkably close to other, more expensive tethered headsets. Performance will only get better once Facebook unlocks the 90 Hz screens for developers to take full advantage of, whether the system is being tethered or used on its own. I can easily see this becoming my go-to VR device for every use case.
Which leaves us where we are today: You can still track down a Quest or Rift S, but only for a limited time. As of spring 2021, your options will be winnowed down to a single VR headset: the Quest 2.
The good news is the Quest 2 is a very strong choice, especially at $299.99.