Six years ago the social media giant bought VR pioneer Oculus for $2 billion. Facebook has been trying to get VR right since, and is getting close. The new Oculus Quest 2 headset has its flaws, but overall it’s the most satisfying device of its kind. And the price is right; at $300, the Quest 2 costs the same as other hot video game consoles, such as Nintendo Switch or Microsoft Xbox Series S.
Only about one-fifth of Americans have ever tried a VR system, much less purchased one. That’s partly because many early versions had to be tethered to an expensive high-powered PC, or at least a Sony PlayStation 4 or 5.
The Quest 2 is a standalone system, that is, the headset is the computer. This is made possible by a new computer chip from Qualcomm that’s got enough firepower for such tasks. Along with the headset, you get a pair of game controllers, one for each hand. When you’re inside a game, these controllers look like whatever you need them to be— a fist, a .45 pistol, or a light saber.
You won’t be surprised to learn that you’ll have to connect the Quest 2 through a Facebook account. It’s probably not a dealbreaker. We’re signed up already, aren’t we? Still, it means Facebook has come up with yet another way to monitor your every move — in this case literally.
Quest uses an array of four headset-mounted cameras to scan your surroundings and help you set up a safe playing area. Using a game controller, you “spraypaint” a boundary on the floor. If you cross it, the game disappears, replaced by live video of the room, so you won’t trip over the furniture. You can also activate this feature manually, by tapping the side of the headset.
The headset uses a motion detector and gyroscope to detect movements of your head and body. Look up, and, you see a star-filled sky, not your living room ceiling; glance over your shoulder, and there’s a monster sneaking up on you.
I’ve got an unusually large head and wear glasses to boot, so I found the Quest 2 a little too snug for perfect comfort. Adjusting it took a minute or so every time I donned the device, partly because it was clamped to my head with a cheap-looking and cheap-feeling elastic strap. Oculus charges an extra $50 for an “elite strap,” a plastic device that fastens to the back of the head and would probably provide much better support. For $130, the elite strap also includes an auxiliary battery to extend playtime beyond the two to three hours you can expect from the Quest’s built-in battery. And for another $80, I could order a set of snap-on prescription lenses from online eyewear dealer FramesDirect. Then I could play without my glasses.
In all, the Quest 2 is nowhere near as good a fit as the Sony PlayStation VR headset, the most comfortable I’ve tried. But who wants to be lashed to a machine?
There isn’t a huge library of VR games, but I wasn’t bored. Not when I can hang with my favorite movie villain, in the Star Wars game “Vader Immortal.” Actually, it’s a series of three mini-games, each priced at $10, in which you’re recruited as the Dark Lord’s newest apprentice. There’s light sabering aplenty here, but what I really loved was total immersion in the Star Wars universe of scruffy old spaceships, snarky robots, and vast alien landscapes.
Or for a raging good time, there’s “Pistol Whip,” a musical rhythm game not unlike “Just Dance” or even the old “Guitar Hero.” Only in this game, you’re armed with a pistol, not a Fender Stratocaster. Your goal is to go all John Wick, and gun down a series of would-be assassins, while ducking their incoming fire and dodging around various obstacles, all to the propulsive beat of lounge music. After a couple of rounds, my deskbound, locked-down body was aching, but I was grinning like a trigger-happy fool.
I found myself wishing the family could see what I saw as I flailed away. In fact they can, sort of. The Oculus smartphone app — by the by, the best way to purchase additional content ― offers a “casting” feature similar to YouTube, so you can show a two-dimensional live stream of your gameplay on any networked phone, computer, or smart TV.
For a break in the action, you can punch up some cool VR videos. But it’s as a game machine that the Quest 2 really earns its keep. For the first time in years, it feels like VR might just be the next big thing.