The Meta Quest 2 is almost amazing.
It is a tantalising glimpse of a future which isn't quite here yet. I dislike
Facebook's Meta's vision of the Metaverse - but the tech is undoubtedly fun when it works.
I remember using VR way back in the 1990s. When on holiday, games arcades often had a VR helmet. I wasted all my pocket money on virtual tanks, creeping through virtual dungeons, and generally feeling virtually claustrophobic.
A few years ago I tinkered around with Google Cardboard. Finally! VR was cheap and available to the masses! Just flip your phone on the side and off you go.
Sadly, the world didn't bite. VR still suffers from the same two problem that it always has. First, no one has enough space. This was a problem which the Xbox Kinect faced in the UK / EU. Our living spaces are generally a lot smaller than those in the USA - and the Kinect just couldn't cope. If you took a step forward from your couch, it lost sight of you.
VR has the same problem. You need a large amount of dedicated floorspace, and no cats, kids, or clutter to bash into. Otherwise you're just sat on your arse on a spinning chair.
The second problem is that VR is fundamentally alienating for everyone else in the room with you. If you're playing a console game, your friends or family can watch what you're doing. If you're strapped into VR, you're like a junkie in the corner giggling away at sprites only you can see.
This is why
Anyway, I bought a 2nd hand Meta Quest 2 from a kid who was bored of using it. It's partly for my MSc, and partly so I can see what the fuss is all about.
I'm a sceptic and a grumpy old fart - so adjust your expectations accordingly.
The Quest uses USB-C to recharge! Hurrah! I feared I'd need a proprietary Zuckercable - but it came with USB and plug. Except... the Quest controllers are not rechargeable!
This seems bonkers to me - especially as you can buy AA batteries which recharge via USB-C
It also demands a mobile phone be paired with it. There's no indication of why. If you don't have a phone, you're out of luck. There's no way to even demo the unit without a companion app. Again, a needlessly user-hostile action. Luckily, there's a workaround to log in with a developer account.
Once in, and after the requisite multi-gigabyte updates, it's a pretty good experience.
The tutorial app is pretty fun. Dancing with a robot, throwing paper planes, shooting laser beams. It's nifty - but hardly revolutionary. Holding a gun in VR looks cool, but fundamentally isn't any different from Nintendo's Duck Hunt from 1984. The grab-and-manipulate mechanic is similar to the Nintendo Wii.
The brightly coloured graphics make everything pop - but hide the fact that things are generally low-resolution in order to keep things running smoothly.
The interface is adequately intuitive. It does a reasonable job of guiding you through the set-up. Everything is cartoony and playful. If you slip in to pass-through mode (where you can see the real world) the cameras show you a fuzzy & greyed-out picture - almost as if to emphasise how dull the ordinary world is compared to the Metaverse.
I was impressed at how well it let me define the safe space around my body, and it did an excellent job of preventing me from walking into walls. No mean feat given how clumsy I am.
The app store looked neat - but there didn't seem to be an easy way to filter for free games. And while Beat Sabre and Darth Vader™ look like fun, I'm unwilling to plonk down £30 without a free demo. Given the expense of the hardware, the need to keep people hooked, and the novelty of the medium it feels like a weird misstep. I'm sure there are some cool free experiences, but the Quest doesn't make them easy to find.
After an hour or so of playing, it whined about needing more power. So I returned to the mundane world.
The original problems with VR are all still there. Getting interpupillary distance correct is a bit of trial and error. I was expecting to be able to adjust the distance between lenses while wearing the headset. Instead you have to remove the headset and manually adjust. That makes it difficult to share the headset with friends.
Adjusting the tightness of the headset is a bit tricky. It's a loop of fabric which is impossible to adjust while you're wearing the headset. Unless the headset is really tight, the picture quickly becomes blurry. But when the picture is clear, it's pretty pixelated. It's a lose-lose situation. Reading text is just about OK, but gets tiresome quickly as your eyes struggle to focus.
And, if the strap is too tight, it's painful and sweaty.
Peripheral vision is limited. Without a radical change in screen shape, there's not much can be done about that.
The sound is compellingly good. Even without headphones. There's great directionality. Although, it does stutter now and again.
Hand tracking is weirdly accurate. The hand controllers do a reasonable job of mapping your finger movements. Picking up objects and interacting with them is intense. So much so that I tried to put down an object on a virtual table and nearly dropped the controller on the floor! Thank heaven for wrist straps!
And then the tracking gets confused and your hand isn't where you expect it to be. Your proprioception goes out of whack and the illusion breaks.
That's where the problem lies. The key thing about VR is that when you're in, you're in! But it only takes a dropped frame, skipped audio, or glitchy bit of tracking to drag you out of the illusion.
I got a 2nd hand Quest on the cheap. I'd have been pretty narked if I'd paid full price for this sub-par experience. I've only played it for an hour, so I doubt I've experienced the full range of wonder. But it's a slow and choppy start. I can see the potential, but have yet to experience anything compelling. It's a bit like playing Night Trap on the Sega MegaCD - yes, this is what the future of interactive movies could look like. But, no, it's not likely to grab mainstream attention.
In a world of 4K consoles delivering cinematic quality visuals, the Quest's graphics looks like an N64 in comparison.
The tech is tantalisingly close. The experience is reasonable fun - if you're happy with a heavy, battery hungry, face-hugger strapped to you.
VR is like cold-fusion. It's going to be amazing next year. Next year the glasses will be smaller. Next year the graphics will be better. Next year the battery will last longer. Next year the hand tracking will be more accurate. Next year... Next year... Next year...