I live in Oregon, and my state is on fire. The sky outside my window is a ruddy yellow-brown, imagine the foggiest day of your life and throw a sepia filter over it. That’s Portland right now. The air smells like a million acre campfire and tastes bitter on your tongue. For a few hours as the sun sets, the sky becomes the color of spilt blood, and the sun looks like the eye of an angry god burning a hole in the world. It’s all a bit on the nose isn’t it?
Before the fires, VR had been an oasis from the crushing familiarity of an apartment I couldn’t leave. Now it’s even more of a refuge. When I’m wearing the Oculus Quest 2 I can’t see the stinging smoke or angry sky and I breathe just a little easier. It’s a different kind of escapism than I get out of watching Peaky Blinders, or playing Spiritfarer. It’s hard to engage with media in any meaningful (or escapist) way when even the sunlight is burning. Unless that media can take you by the hand and lead you into a different world.
Typically, tethered-to-a-desktop-PC VR is a real production to pull off. I have to clear some space, plug all the boxes and cables in, make sure the main cable isn’t knotted or kinked, put on my headset, adjust the straps, take it off, adjust the fit again, then fire up the game launcher. After that, I play for a few minutes while trying to stay hyper aware of the position of the cable so I don’t yank it out, and constantly peek through the bottom of the headset so I don’t trip on it and slam a hand into my desk (again).
It was even worse in the external sensor days, when I’d have to position sensor lighthouses around the room to track my movements. If there wasn’t someone else there to handle all the setup and cables, being in VR was less immersive than watching a movie or playing a non-VR game. It’s easy to sink into a story playing out on screen when I’m reclined on a couch with the lights off. In VR, the constant need to be aware of my surroundings always split my attention in two, and cooled down my excitement for virtual gaming.
The Oculus Quest was the first headset to change that. It doesn’t require any cords, or a PC. It plays games all on its own, unless you want to tether to a PC for ultra high-end experiences. It was the first headset that made me excited for VR. And I wasn’t alone. It flew off the shelves. Demand greatly outpaced supply, likely because it was a headset for people who didn’t want to set aside an entire room for VR. With the Quest, you could just clear a spot in your living room, or even just stay seated on the couch, and you were all set.
The last couple days, I’ve taken my breaks with the new $299 Oculus Quest 2. Like its predecessor, it connects to my Wi-Fi and plays games all by itself, with two wireless motion controllers, a sleeker white design, and a few new abilities.
I tend to slide it on, plug some noise canceling headphones into the headphone jack (it has speakers, but I like full immersion), and spend a little time with Quill the mouse knight from Moss. Sometimes I just open YouTube VR and watch high resolution wildlife videos. Scuttling crabs, pristine beaches, primeval forests—I’ve visited them all with the Quest 2.
When I really need to sink into another world for a while, I close Slack for the day, eat a cannabis gummy, and spend some time playing Rez Infinite. Soaring through a 90’s version of cyberspace to a gentle, thumping synth soundtrack is a great way to forget about the ever-encroaching wildfires, if only for a while.
The Oculus Quest 2 is smaller than the original Quest, a bit lighter, less front-heavy— that’s impressive considering the displays are higher-res than ever before. It doesn’t feel like you’re wearing your dad’s binoculars on your face anymore. The head strap is looser, it’s all fabric now instead of semi-rigid soft-touch plastic. It’s a change I have mixed feelings about.
The fabric straps are much more comfortable, and they’re a bit easier to adjust. Problem is, the previous version’s headstrap was shaped to sort of cradle the back of your head—and it had a hole I could tuck my ponytail through. This new one doesn’t, so it tends to slide down your nose a little bit over time, like a pair of glasses. It doesn’t slide much, but it is noticeable if you don’t have the straps adjusted just right.
Oculus does have plans to roll out some accessories to give players some options when it comes to straps. The forthcoming Pro Strap is rigid and similar to the one on the Oculus Rift S. It’s meant to provide a more reliable base if you’re playing physically active VR games. Additionally, Oculus plans to release a battery pack that attaches to the Pro Strap, doubling the battery life you’ll get out of the Quest 2, which is normally about 2 – 3 hours.
Adjusting pupillary distance is also a bit different on the Quest 2. On the previous model, there was a little slider underneath the visor you’d use to find the right pupil distance so you can see clearly; you’d adjust it while the headset was on your head. To set your pupil distance on the Quest 2, you need to take the headset off, move the lenses a bit, put the headset back on, and try again until you get it just right for your eyes. Thankfully, it’s a one-time setup. The lenses stay put, and since there’s no external slider, you won’t accidentally bump them out of the correct position when you’re fumbling for the volume rocker. But if more than one person uses your Quest 2, the tougher setup might annoy you.
No Controller Needed (Technically)
In the past couple years, Oculus has carefully sanded down all the edges that made VR such a prickly proposition for many gamers. Jumping in and out of VR is even more seamless with the Quest 2 thanks to the introduction of hand tracking.
With the Quest 2, you can use your hands instead of the controllers. Seeing the headset render your hands, and perfectly catch their every movement in VR is pretty cool. You can even make certain rude gestures and see them in VR. The hand tracking doesn’t like when you put your hands together, though. It loses sight of them as soon as your palms touch.
It’s more of a proof of concept than a practical feature. There aren’t many games or experiences that support hand tracking so you’re mostly limited to navigating the Quest 2’s menus. But even something as simple as swiping through the Oculus Store with nothing but your hands is a really cool experience that makes me excited for the future of this technology.
Excellence With an Asterisk
Oculus is investing heavily in the Quest 2. In fact, it’s the company’s new flagship headset. The Oculus Rift S is being discontinued, as is the previous Quest. They’re headed to a lovely farm upstate where they can run wild and free with other retired headsets like the Oculus Go. It’s a smart move. The Quest 2 is the best Oculus headset by far. Coming at about $300 when it hits shelves October 13 (you can preorder it), with top-notch tethered and untethered VR capabilities, the Oculus Quest 2 delivers on the promise of VR in ways other headsets never have, and that’s exciting for the future.
Unfortunately, the Oculus Quest 2 also requires a Facebook account to use. Like Instagram, Oculus was one of those companies owned by Facebook that had often escaped the (well-warranted) criticisms leveled at its corporate parent. But you will no longer be able to use an Oculus account to sign into the Oculus Store or set up your Quest 2. It’s a decision born of corporate consolidation at the expense of usability, and it’s the biggest drawback of the Quest 2.
This deepening of ties between the two won’t sit well with some players, and for good reason. It’s not paranoia to think critically about who you’re giving your data to, and how they might use it.
The Quest 2 is a stellar piece of hardware, peerless in the VR space, but make sure you’re making an informed purchase. I recommend you read up on Facebook’s more recent controversies, especially how the company handles (and has mis-handled) user data before taking the plunge.