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Facebook's latest virtual reality headset is the best yet, but still feels antisocial

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Facebook on Wednesday announced the Oculus Quest 2 virtual reality headset. It’s a successor to last year’s Quest and, like that version, doesn’t require a computer to run. Everything you need to use VR is bundled inside.

This is the strategy Facebook is taking moving forward. It’s ditching the Oculus Rift headset, which required a PC to operate.

You can still run advanced PC virtual reality games designed for the Rift on the Quest 2 using an Oculus Link USB-C cable. Oculus Link was in beta on the original Oculus Quest, but now it’s an official feature. This is Facebook’s long-term vision: a headset you can use anywhere you want, but that you can still link to a PC to render games that require more powerful hardware.

The Oculus Quest has been popular during the coronavirus pandemic, as people look for more entertainment options at home. Facebook and its retail partners have had a hard time keeping them in stock. Facebook told CNBC that it’s boosting production of the Oculus Quest 2 in order to meet demand. But, it still hasn’t revealed how many of these VR headsets it has actually sold.

To help further boost sales, Facebook said it’s launching the Quest 2 in Japan, its first entry in that market, where it hopes to attract gamers.

One new problem that may hurt growth, however, is a Facebook account is required to use Oculus headsets. That could turn off people who don’t have accounts and don’t want to have one.

A step in the right direction

The home screen in the Oculus Quest 2.

Facebook

The new Quest is smaller than last year’s model and includes better controllers and a screen that’s smoother and sharper, and new Qualcomm processors, which should improve its performance.

Facebook just sent me one of the new Quests, and I’ve only used it for a few hours so far, but I noticed that images look crisper than they did on the original Quest. The Oculus Quest 2 is smaller than the predecessor, which made it comfortable while wearing over longer periods. It’s 10% lighter than last year’s model, despite having a new screen with 50% more pixels and a display with a faster refresh rate, which makes it smoother to browse through lists, websites, apps and so on. It’s also great for games.

The Oculus Quest 2, like its predecessor, can do a whole bunch of stuff. You can watch Netflix in a gigantic virtual movie theater or a comfortable living room environment. You watch live TV with Sling TV. There are hundreds of games to pick from, ranging from racing to first-person shooters. And it feels really fast. There aren’t long load screens and graphics looked great. It’s also super easy to navigate with the included controllers, especially if you’ve used any sort of gaming controller before. Facebook even has an option that lets you pinch, scroll and select stuff using just your hands, though I always just preferred using the handsets.

The game Population: One for Oculus Quest 2.

BigBox

One new game that’s coming out later this fall, called Population: One, was really fun. Like Fortnite, it has a map that shrinks in size, and players fight to remain the last team standing. But, you can climb anything, including huge buildings, and then fly down from them. It’s pretty wild, and I actually felt scared climbing a building in VR, even though I knew I was sitting at my desk. Some of the more realistic settings made me really nauseous afterwards, though. You need to get adjusted to moving around in a digital world while standing still in real life. So, newcomers to VR (or even advanced gamers like myself) may want to change some of the settings to make it a bit easier on the stomach.

VR is still not social enough

Last year’s Quest proved that V  can be great entertainment, and that Facebook’s 2014 acquisition of Oculus, which at the time was the clear leader in VR, might prove worth the $2 billion it spent. It works well and it’s fun.

Still, getting a mass population of regular people into VR may be tough. Gaming with a console is a social activity: You sit on the couch with friends and can see and hear their reactions as you play against one another. Virtual reality is still profoundly isolating.

One way to make it more social would be for Facebook to build a so-called “metaverse” of sorts where you could jump into a single app and hang out with friends, play games, and watch movies and TV shows, all in a huge alternate universe where thousands or millions of people interact. That seems particularly appealing during the pandemic, since we can’t hang out and go to football games or concerts in person. It’s the idea inside the book (and movie) “Ready Player One,” which at one point was required reading for all new Facebook employees — and Facebook, which already runs global-scale services where nearly 3 billion people communicate and interact, seems perfectly positioned to build it.

Ready Player One

Source: Warner Bros.

Facebook is beta-testing a project called Horizon that will connect people all over the world and let them play games together, which may be a first move toward this kind of environment, but it’s still in beta-testing and not available for the Quest 2 yet.

For now, VR is best if you just want to escape reality for an hour or two. I’ve had fun experiences sharing it with the family, while others watched on, but you’ll need multiple units to actually play games together. At $299, that’ll add up quicker than the new Xbox One X and PS5 consoles, which allow people to game side-by-side on the couch.

The Oculus Quest 2 goes on sale Oct. 13. The entry-level model has 64GB of storage for $299 while a model with 256GB of storage will cost $399. Casual users only need the entry-level option.

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