During Oculus’ most recent Oculus Connect 5 event, the company announced a product some pundits are hailing as the turning point for VR hardware.
At a glance, Oculus Quest appears to be exactly what everyone has been asking for out of VR. Priced at $400, it provides room-scale tracking (scaling up to vast multi-room experiences that may match or exceed Vive’s commercial arena tracking systems). It uses inside-out on headset tracking and therefore requires minimal setup. On top of that, it requires no separate PC to run. The entire headset is self contained, along with its two controllers that are a close match to the rift’s much admired move controllers.
As a self described VR evangelist, I sincerely wish I could tout this new development as an exciting new chapter in the evolution of VR hardware. Unfortunately, I can’t.
You may be wondering, how could someone credibly bash a product before it’s even been released. Someone who hasn’t even had an opportunity to test Quest for himself?
Sadly, the flaw in this product sits on the spec page, and there’s simply no way as I see it that it can be overcome.
This headset is severely graphically underpowered.
Since the early days of our current VR revival, processing power has always been a major roadblock to progress. Early Oculus prototypes suffered from low frame rates, resulting in crippling nausea. Even today’s headsets, running on the up until recently top dog of GPUS, the 1080ti, occasionally struggle to render console quality graphics at 90 frames per second in two eyes.
Oculus and Valve raced to develop software bandaids that could lighten the performance load. Some experiences (simulation games especially) were dramatically improved by techniques like ASW. Yet just as optimal performance in graphically complex titles was approaching the mainstream, new headsets launched with increased pixel counts (most notably the HTC Vive Pro, and the Samsung Odyssey). Once again, only the most beastly graphics cards could render complex graphics at full frame rate, and even then, they often struggled.
With this context, take a look at Oculus Quest. In order to fit all its processing hardware within the headset, Oculus has had to use a mobile phone GPU, which runs on about 5 watts of power——the aforementioned desktop GPUs run on closer to 500. According to a breakdown by the venerable John Carmack (Via Road to VR), CTO of Oculus, the GPU in raw output is roughly equivalent to an Xbox 360, a thirteen year old console that ran its games at 720P and 30 frames per second. Carmack himself readily explains that when you increase the frame rate to VR capable levels and also increase the resolution, developers will have to face the reality that this headset can’t compete with the graphics of last generations AAA console games.
To be fair, this quagmire isn’t entirely Oculus’s fault. The physical laws of the universe are not easily bent, and as such, it’s utterly unrealistic to expect a 4×10 500w graphics card to be shrunk down to the size of my thumb. And if Oculus continues with the advanced rendering tricks and techniques it implemented for Oculus Go, the headset will surely perform a bit better than our straight GPU compute comparison would suggest. Still, there’s simply no way that Quest can approach the levels of graphical fidelity seen in the current crop of tethered headsets.
What does all this mean? In essence, Quest is only going to be capable of running simplified versions of today’s least intensive VR games. In most cases, it seems inevitable that those are going to be the titles that have been derided by critics as “glorified tech demos” and arcade experiences. The kind of graphically simple, small scale experiences that can easily be ported to a low power system. No VR Skyrim, Elite Dangerous or—heaven forbid—fresh replayable AAA content.
The truth about VR gaming, that virtually no one seems to have grasped, is that the change in medium doesn’t change the fundamentals of what makes a great game. Throwing together a light saber simulator only gets you so far. At the end of the day, you still need stories with depth. You still need complex and satisfying game mechanics. And you still need to be running hardware that’s capable of providing the above experiences.
All of which is to say, if you’re excited by the idea of playing immersive VR titles, and you can afford to buy or upgrade a capable PC, there’s a great option out there for you. It’s called Oculus Rift.
Looking for more info on jumping into VR? Check out the Gremlin’s VR Guide for recommendations on headsets, favorite games, and tips and tricks.