A group of five boxers and I recently threw punches to upbeat music while an instructor egged us on. By the end of the 20-minute workout, I’d broken a sweat and my smartwatch showed my heart rate thumping at 140 beats a minute.
Normally, this would be the result of a workout at my local gym. But in a pandemic that has forced most fitness centers to shut down, I had to settle for a make-believe boxing class while wearing a computer headset and jabbing and punching with a pair of motion-sensing controllers.
That’s just part of what I’ve been doing in Facebook’s new virtual-reality system, the Oculus Quest 2, which the company unveiled recently, to escape from the seemingly never-ending, pandemic-induced stay-at-home session. In another game, I played Texas Hold ’em poker with a table of chatty players. In still another, I rowed a kayak to infiltrate an enemy base.
The Oculus Quest 2 is Facebook’s latest foray into virtual reality gaming. In this version, Oculus, the virtual-reality company that Facebook acquired for $2 billion in 2014, took what it learned from earlier experiments selling bulky headgear wired to powerful computers as well as wireless goggles that relied on smartphones to run games.
Now the Quest 2, the company said, blends the best of both worlds. It’s a complete virtual reality system inside a portable headset (no phone required). And if you want to play more powerful games, you have the option of attaching the headset to a personal computer (which will require buying a separate PC for upward of $829) for extra horsepower.
“Everything felt to us like we were compromising on this or that, but now we can say we have this hybrid experience,” said Prabhu Parthasarathy, a product manager for Facebook’s Oculus.
Based on my tests for a week, the Quest 2 is a major improvement from the Oculus Rift, Facebook’s first virtual-reality system in 2016. The Oculus Rift suffered from a complicated setup, awkward controls and lackluster games — and it required a powerful computer to work, which drove the cost up to $1,500.
The Oculus Quest 2, which costs $300, is more compelling and easier to set up. There are now also more than 200 titles for people to choose from, including puzzle games, shooters and creativity apps.
So how was it? Compared with sitting next to an air purifier while doomscrolling through news about the California wildfires, I had fun in Facebook’s virtual la-la land. But many of the games quickly felt repetitive and strained my eyes. In the end, I much preferred vegging out with my PlayStation or Nintendo consoles, which have far superior video games.
Here’s how the Quest 2 works, its pros and cons and what to expect if you buy a virtual-reality system today:
Product setup and overview
Compared with past virtual-reality systems, the Quest 2 is a breeze to set up. You simply download the Oculus app to your phone and log in with your Facebook account. (In October, Facebook will begin requiring new Oculus users to log in with Facebook accounts.) The app then walks you through how to turn on the headset and synchronize the two wireless controllers.
The headset and controllers include motion sensors to follow your head and hand movements. For safety reasons, don’t expect to walk around: You’ll only play Oculus virtual-reality games either standing up or sitting down. When you stand up, the system lets you see through the headset using a camera so that you can use the controllers to draw an outline around your play area to avoid striking obstacles.
The headset feels lightweight and includes adjustable straps and lenses. Overall, the video looked clear. But after moving your head around a lot, images can look blurry and it will occasionally need readjusting to bring the picture back into focus.
The headset’s battery will last two to three hours, and it’s rechargeable by plugging in a USB cable. The motion controllers use AA batteries, which will last many sessions — I still haven’t had to replace them.
You can easily buy games through the Oculus app store. Here’s where my praise for the system begins to fade.
I asked Oculus product managers to name a few of their favorite games that would show the Quest 2’s strengths. Ultimately, I felt most weren’t worth my money.
Consider Beat Saber, a rhythm game that involves swinging your arms to hit objects with light sabers. At first, this felt like a fun demonstration of the Quest 2’s three-dimensional motion-sensing capabilities. But it got old quickly because it reminded me of Dance Dance Revolution and Guitar Hero, two popular rhythm games from more than a decade ago.
Another recommended title was Phantom: Covert Ops. It’s a stealth game where you sneak into enemy bases by rowing around a kayak and shooting opponents from the boat. This game, which is played sitting down, got frustrating quickly because the rowing motions are tedious. I also couldn’t stop thinking about how the premise of a stealth kayak was laughably implausible and how much I’d rather be playing Metal Gear Solid, the stealth game that this one imitates. (In that game, at least I got to move around with legs.)
My favorite game, which was recommended by Oculus staff, was FitXR, the boxing simulator, in large part because I took boxing classes for many years. The game makes clever use of the motion controllers to require players to do realistic punching motions; wimpy punches don’t score points. There were always plenty of players online to compete with, which kept me motivated through each workout.
In the end, I paid $110 for the Oculus games and only felt happy with the $30 I spent on FitXR. I regretted spending $20 to $30 on the other titles because they brought me minutes of entertainment, not hours. In contrast, a mainstream game for PlayStation or Nintendo typically costs $60 but provides dozens of hours of entertainment.
That’s all to say that Facebook has nailed the Oculus hardware, but it still has a long way to go with content. I’m still waiting for a virtual-reality game that truly consumes me like The Last of Us Part II did on PlayStation 4 or The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild did on Nintendo Switch.
To be fair, virtual reality content in general still has a long way to go. Sony also offers a $300 VR headset, the PlayStation VR, which plugs into the PlayStation console, and its VR games also aren’t as compelling as standard console titles.
Lewis Ward, an IDC analyst who follows the video games industry, said that VR games were slowly getting better, but Oculus missed a major opportunity with this pandemic: applications that help people work remotely. It lacks a good remote work tool like Zoom or Slack, which could have lured many businesses to virtual reality.
“VR would have had its moment,” Ward said.
Facebook said it was accelerating its plans around using virtual reality for work. Last year, it started Oculus for Business, a program to help companies set up virtual-reality work environments. For $799, it said it would bundle the Oculus Quest 2 with special business-ready software that helps companies train employees, design products and collaborate on projects.
For now, fitness feels like the category where VR can have its moment. After a few days of playing the boxing simulator FitXR, my arms felt sore. That was either a sign that VR had done its job well — or that my muscles had atrophied after six months without a gym.