by Jennifer Allen on
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The Oculus Go wants to bring VR to the masses. That’s a tougher task than it sounds, though. The Go may not accomplish that goal on its own, but it’s an impressive first step.
The Oculus Go is a $200 self-contained VR headset from the same company that’s behind the much more expensive Oculus Rift. You don’t need a fancy gaming PC, and you don’t use your smartphone (Android, of course, sorry iPhone users) as the display. In fact, arguably the most accessible high-end VR so far has been the PSVR, and even that requires you to have a relatively expensive console.
The Oculus Go requires nothing but itself, which immediately makes it much more appealing than most other headsets on the market. The question isn’t so much how it holds up to other VR headsets, but whether it’s worth buying on its own.
At $200, it’s hard to expect the world from a VR headset. Still, the Go stands tall among budget-friendly headsets like the Gear VR or Google Daydream. In fact, it looks strikingly similar to a Daydream headset, without the flap on the front to load in a phone. It uses similar soft gray fabric and sits comfortably on your face.
The headset also comes with some impressively intuitive features. When you set it down on the table, the headset turns itself off to conserve battery. When you lift up to eye level, it switches on. Every time you put it on again for the first time, it prompts you to recenter the display by holding the Oculus button. Recentering is a common and necessary task for mobile headsets, but being prompted to do it when the headset is likely disoriented (like after it’s been sitting on the table for a while), is a nice touch that helps ensure you’re having a good experience.
The Go has some thoughtful premium features mixed in with some budget-conscious decisions that reflect its price point.
However, there are downsides to using a cheaper headset. For starters, the lenses are less than ideal. The Fresnel style lenses have a concentric ring pattern that is designed to reduce the aberration that occurs when bending light in a small area. This is necessary to reduce the fish-eye look that would otherwise plague VR headsets.
On its own, this style of lens wouldn’t be a problem, and in fact would benefit the headset. However, unlike the Oculus Rift, there is no way to adjust the focal length of the lenses to suit your face. This means that it’s easy for the picture to slip out of focus. Additionally, towards the edge of the lenses, you start to notice a halo effect. This is especially noticeable on white parts of the image, where orange and blue light refracts at distinctly different angles. If you turn your eyes to look at part of an image without turning your head, you could end up looking at a severely distorted picture.
On top of this, the Oculus Go supports head tracking but it can’t track your movement in physical space. That means if you turn left, the headset will respond, but if you step left, you’ll remain motionless in VR. This is expected for such an inexpensive headset, but it’s important to realize you’re only getting half the experience of a more expensive headset.
When it comes time to actually use the headset, the software library can make or break your experience. Unfortunately, there’s a bit more breaking than making going on in the Oculus Store. Currently, the software library is limited to what was available via the Samsung Gear VR, which is a small portion of what the full Oculus Rift can do. That means if you’ve ever watched someone on YouTube playing some crazy VR game, there’s only a small chance it’s available here.
So, what is available? Well, for starters there’s a lot of movie-watching apps. Netflix, Hulu, and Plex, all make an appearance. While it’s encouraging to see big companies bringing their apps to the headset, VR still isn’t exactly the best way to watch movies. It’s fine, but it’s not great. Two hours or more with a headset strapped to your face watching an effectively lower-resolution version of a movie is the kind of thing you’d do on an airplane. Not as much in the comfort of your own home when the TV is right there—even an older flat screen TV will offer a high resolution and more comfortable viewing experience.
Using the Go as a head-strapped movie theater is not a killer feature, but the promise of cheap access to fun VR titles just might be—eventually.
Games, on the other hand, can make it worth it. This is the part where the lack of access to the full Oculus (or even Steam) library starts to stand out. You’re not getting the really big experiences like Skyrim VR, Doom VFR, or even Batman: Arkham VR. Even many of the weird indie games like Job Simulator aren’t present. However, there is thankfully a Go version of the excellent Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes. If you buy an Oculus Go headset, do yourself a favor and recruit a few friends to play this with you, because it’s a blast.
There are also a number of VR chat apps. Crucially, this does not include VRChat, which I will leave you to Google on your own because that community is hardly safe for a site like this. The chat apps are an entertaining novelty, but you’ll spend your time either hopping into rooms with strangers, or waiting for your friends to buy their own headsets. I took a trip through Altspace VR and it was a neat social app, but half the hosted rooms were either dead, or only had one guy wandering around just as confused as I was. This is an application that could have a future, but it’s going to need whatever the VR equivalent of Facebook will be to come in and create a solid experience everyone uses before it becomes popular enough to really have fun with.
If it feels like we keep saying VR is just around the corner, that’s because it sort of is. The technology is really promising and tech reviewers are consistently blown away by what’s possible (though maybe not what’s already available). For years, that promise has been kept locked away in expensive headsets that, at best, that one guy you know who buys everything has sitting around.
This is the first time that VR feels both accessible and—sorry Google, Samsung—not half-assed. You don’t need a special Android phone and you don’t need to spend a fortune. You can just go to the store, buy this VR headset, and you’re good to go. The motion controls are fluid enough to almost disappear (except in a few apps that are poorly programmed, but that’s not the fault of the headset itself), and even though it lacks features like tracking your position in space, it’s still enough to immerse you.
Unfortunately, like any new form factor, it’s going to take time for the software to catch up. There has been years worth of app and game development for VR, but most of it has been directed at the expensive headsets that are capable of far more than the Oculus Go can do. The Gear VR was a clever way for Oculus to get a backdoor into creating a consumer-level VR software library. And to be fair, there are a few very good experiences in the Oculus Store! However, you’ll find the Oculus Go will be more of a novelty until developers catch up. If the Go catches on, they might have just enough motivation to adapt existing titles and release new ones to take advantage of the budget hardware. Like many hardware platforms that have preceded it, the strength of the Go experience relies on both consumer adoption and developer support, but if it can get the traction it needs it’s at the right price point to put VR in a lot of hands.
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