VR revolution: any day now

Oculus Quest 2 is a decent device that costs a bit less than a nice iPad, and far less than a television and console.

From a performance perspective, it's surprisingly decent.

I'm no fan of Facebook, but curiosity got the better of me. I grabbed a Quest 2 to find out if we were any closer to a big shift in culture, communication and commerce.

I think it could happen any day now. But it's not here yet.

Once upon a time

We've been holding our breath on VR since before I entered puberty. At malls and fair grounds, you could get a taste of the future by strapping into a monstrous set of gear.

It never really took off, to say nothing of coming into the home.

Placing ourselves into a simulated environment that our eyes and ears will believe is a challenge. It requires tracking the user's motion in space at multiple levels. Not just where the body is moving, but where the head is pointed. More advanced systems might even track your limbs. All of this, historically, has required significant computing power, specialized hardware, and complex software.

But over the last five years, VR has gurgled back into life. I'd call Vive the best early expression of modern VR, but that's not saying much. To make Vive work, you needed:

  • A high end gaming PC with a powerful graphics processor
  • Permanently mounted "lighthouse" devices for tracking your movements in 3D space
  • A heavy, bulky headset tethered to your PC by several cables
  • Big, awkward controllers to track your hand movements

Once you assembled all of this, you were rewarded with an experience that resembled reality as viewed through a screen door. To trick the mind into a 3D experience, a VR rig needs to produce two images: one for each eye.

So you need to be able to drive a lot of pixels in order to make 3D work. This is challenging in two places: computationally, as more detail requires more horsepower, and physically, as pixel density makes display panels like those used in a headset more expensive. In Vive's case, managing these costs  meant a distracting black grid seemingly overlaid on an otherwise plausible visual field.

Really, you were perceiving the gaps between pixels.

So, just to get into VR you were talking about $500 for Vive hardware and another $1500 for a high end gaming PC. In exchange, you got a mediocre picture and occasional headaches.

Literally, headaches. I had to take the thing off sometimes because of nausea and other discomfort.

It wasn't a great value proposition.

That doesn't even get into how technically complicated the first-run experience was. It required so many cables plugged in, so many pieces of software installed, so many interlocking systems to debug. This was an experience only arch nerds could make sense of. It had no chance at mass-market appeal.

But that was five years ago. Today, things work a little differently.

Oculus Quest 2: surprisingly okay

Oculus, meanwhile, has been aggressively pushing away from the tethered, PC-dependent model.

In the case of Quest 2 (hereafter Q2), cameras built into the headset itself determine your motion through space. Cameras track the motion of controllers you hold in your hands, allowing you to interact with virtual menus and environments with surprising accuracy.

This is not Facebook's first attempt at such a self-contained system. Vive and Oculus have both been trying to crack the nut of self-contained VR for several iterations now.

From a hardware perspective, it's important to note that Q2 is merely okay, not excellent. The included straps are terrible, though upgrading to a better mounting system is possible. Adjust the straps wrong and you'll have a splitting headache within minutes. But get them too loose, you'll find your view blurry, and a different sort of headache sets in.

VR is still fiddly.

But far less fiddly than it ever was.

Onboarding for Q2 was far easier than anything possible five years ago. You install an app on your phone, sign into Facebook (ick), and pair with the Q2 hardware. From there, you settle into the headset and follow some prompts.

This is a much more consumer-friendly experience. Anyone with tech savvy, or even just a teenager nearby, will do it with no problem.

All of this sets the table for a simple proposition: a computer tricking your brain into thinking you exist somewhere that isn't real. Q2 can do that reliably and somewhat comfortably. Even the screen door effect is much improved. Unlike early adventures with Vive hardware, Q2 has the resolution to convincingly hide the technical details that drive its experience.

The question is:

So what?

The software is meh

Once you're in virtual reality, what's supposed to keep you there?

Right now, not a lot.

There are some compelling novelties. Beat Saber is a rhythm game that's fun and physically demanding, and probably more interesting than any cardio equipment you'll ever find at the gym.

Google's Tilt Brush, an early entry in the modern VR game, might be one of the more magical creative experiences you'll ever have. With Tilt Brush, you can paint in 3D space using both mundane pigments and with light. Five years on, it remains my favorite way to spend time in VR.

There's other stuff. 3D games, from shooters to puzzle things to a remake of Myst. Facebook would like you to conduct meetings in VR. Altspace, now owned by Microsoft, provides a multi-user environments, and Facebook has a competitor in a closed beta.

This software runs the gamut from meh to okay. But I don't think there's a killer app that's going to inspire fanatical, compulsive engagement with an experience you can only get in VR.

Yet.

Still, the economics of Q2 create a strange situation. At $299, it's compelling enough to be an interesting gift. By comparison to a console, it's a bargain. A PS5 costs $499. Add the television you need to play it, and a console experience edges toward $1000.

Will enough people buy them to trigger the network effects needed to start the next phase? If so:

  • All new venues for social media emerge. The basic experience is already cognitively persuasive enough, and everyone is tired at looking through their friends and loved ones through a screen. The illusion of sharing space despite distance will be compelling, to say nothing of sharing physical experiences. But it only works if there are people there you want to share the space with.
  • A customer base large enough to gamble real money on emerges as well. If you can make money building VR experiences, you might make a metric fuckton of money making the one experience people can't live without.

Facebook, of course, badly wants these outcomes. The challenge is in the IP. Sure, Q2 cheaper than a PS5, but so is a plastic bucket, and neither a bucket nor a Q2 is going to be able to play Spiderman or Final Fantasy.

Unless something changes, Facebook is gambling on novelty and a middling content catalog to move these units.

What about Apple?

Of course, Apple has been sitting this one out.

Remember how VR needs lots and lots of pixels, the better to trick your eyes? The thing about Apple is that they have an unparalleled advantage in energy efficient processors that push loads of pixels. Their portable graphics prowess is the best in the business.

Better graphics efficiency means nicer screens and smaller batteries, making for lighter and more comfortable headgear. Apple has been shipping denser and denser screens on lighter and lighter devices for over a decade.

The thing about Apple, though, is that they don't ship their experiments. They ship when they're convinced they're poised to gobble up the entire high end of a hardware market.

Meanwhile, they've been laying the foundations for augmented reality and social VR:

  • ARKit, Apple's framework for realtime compositing of mixed reality content, has been through years of iterations
  • Apple is two years into ramping up production of miniaturized LiDAR sensors, as used in their Pro-level iPhones and iPads
  • The new SharePlay API allows users in different locations to synchronously enjoy the same content

Most of all, Apple already has thousands of developers using these APIs and trained up in their ecosystem. If they release a new category of hardware, they have both the software infrastructure and the developer base to make a play for that vaunted killer app.

Rumors have said for years that Apple is targeting 2022-2023 for such a device. But who knows when they'll move?

Any day now

Facebook is making lots of noise. They have a mindshare advantage, thanks to close consumer relationships built for 16 years, and their pricing is damned compelling. We'll see how many Oculus units go home this holiday season. Microsoft wants their own crack at the pie, Vive is still out there, and Apple is locked in their wizard tower, up to god knows what.

It's still anyone's game, and so far there's nothing to inspire deep FOMO.

Still, with the hardware firming up like this, a whole new paradigm could kick off any day now. For better or worse.

Keep your eyes peeled, and don't forget your dramamine.