Oculus Go world premiere: Acceptable compromises, amazing quality for $199
SAN FRANCISCO—After testing the upcoming Oculus Go headset for 30 minutes, I had to gather my bearings and ask the company's hardware PM Sean Liu to clarify something important. How much is this thing going to retail for, again?
$199, he reminded me.
I needed to double check, because that price sounds very different on the other side of trying Oculus Go at its world-premiere hands-on event at the 2018 Game Developers Conference. Throw out your expectations for what $199 will buy you in terms of standalone, no-wires VR. It used to be that you'd expect to pay half that amount ($99) for a dumb, no-screen, no-memory shell meant to turn your $700+ smartphone into a virtual reality facsimile.
Oculus Go has clear limitations in terms of performance and features, and its biggest feature sacrifice will absolutely limit its software potential. But make no mistake; this is a high-quality, specific-scope device that can get people into affordable, quality, and lower-hassle VR experiences.
Go cheap, Go wireless, but don't Go in six degrees
We already knew a few things about Oculus Go, in addition to the price. Its fabric-lined design and simple strap are the clearest examples of its cost-cutting strides, and it works as a wholly self-contained piece of VR kit. You do not need to slap a smartphone into this device or connect it with a wire to an external box to make it work. That $199 price also includes the system's single controller, which includes a trigger, a directional trackpad, and a pair of menu buttons.
One thing we still don't know is an exact release date. Mark Zuckerberg promised "early 2018" during an event last year, and the company didn't have firmer information on Wednesday.
Oculus did use GDC's platform to confirm a few new Go technical details, including a built-in foveated rendering system—meaning, its games and apps can toggle a reduced resolution in the lens' periphery for the sake of improved performance. Oculus also described a "dynamic throttling" system, which will let developers request a performance threshold that Oculus Go will then over- or underclock its processors to target. This was impossible to test during my brief demos, since I was constantly swapping one headset for another; I was never able to see what happened when pushing heat, battery, or performance over an extended session.
What I did test was the most exciting, newly revealed feature of Oculus Go, at least as a budget device: a screen-refresh overclock to 72Hz, up from its default 60Hz rate. Liu explained to Ars that Oculus' internal testing has found a sweet spot for frame rate that works out as "good enough" for most players, and developers are now free to target that refresh—assuming that Go's dynamic throttling system doesn't kick in and reduce the frame rate at inopportune times, anyway.
That's all hot air if the 72Hz refresh isn't up to scrutiny, but lucky for Oculus, two of its Go demos proved this out. The most impressive was Anshar Online. This head-tracked space shooter has players move their head to steer a spaceship and aim lasers while dogfighting against dozens of foes, and I found that its refresh stayed locked to 72Hz during my demo—and even better, Go's foveated rendering was nigh noticeable. In terms of horsepower, I'd liken the game's world to a PlayStation 2 game's polygonal budget and an Xbox 360's lighting and effects pipeline. Not bad for a self-contained $200 gaming device.
By the way, when Anshar's enemies appear behind you, there's no touchpad option to help players turn around. You have to whip around to steer your spaceship during a frantic dogfight, which makes Oculus Go's no-wires-anywhere proposition all the more tantalizing. Oculus provided a spinny chair for my Anshar demo, and I was able to spin around comfortably to survive and overtake foes.
One other brief demo, for a mini-game collection called They Suspect Nothing, threw up plenty of polygons and effects, and it too held up to scrutiny. The same PS2/X360 comparison applied to what I saw in this game. But this demo threw up the most obnoxious Oculus Go limitation: a lack of true head tracking. This seated experience asks you to swipe on the Go touchpad to move characters around while sitting in a limited perspective, and I constantly found myself wanting to crane my neck or tilt my body to take a better look at the game's action. However, when you get up from a chair while using Oculus Go, you'll run into limits because the hardware doesn't support a true "six degrees of freedom" (6DOF).
As any longtime Samsung Gear VR user will tell you, this disconnect can feel discombobulating, and some VR experiences simply don't translate to a chained-to-a-chair expectation. I ran headlong into this problem while testing the third Oculus Go demo, for Catan VR.
The popular board game's new VR version, which surprise-launched for Oculus Rift on Wednesday, will eventually support crossplay between traditional Rift players and lower-priced Go users. My demo had me face off against real-life Rift foes, and they could move their heads and hands quite freely. I could not. Everything transportive about "VR board games"—picking up cards, rolling dice, and gesturing to friends—was nuked. I even struggled to accurately place Catan's crucial "road" pieces. Go's controller is quite comfortable and can do the trick for simple VR gameplay interactions, but it only offers relative motion control, like an older Wii remote. Basic pointing and gaze-assisted shooting are totally doable. Precise board-game token placement is another story.
But back to the screen
If all of that sounds like a bummer, then let me circle back to the Oculus Go's gorgeous 2560×1440 resolution screen. Its high-quality lenses, its lack of overwhelming light-blur ghosting, and its sharp color reproduction all make me wonder who in the heck Oculus is sourcing its LCD panels from. I have never seen a low-cost VR device produce such stunning visuals.
Oculus has advertised this product as its first major product to employ a "fast-switch" panel, and I'm absolutely sold on its ability to solve low-cost VR's usual problems. (And I put my face into four of these devices, so I don't think Oculus tricked me with a single fluke unit.)
Additionally, built-in speakers are designed to project sound off the side of your head, and the stuff I heard was clean and audible enough, though the crowded GDC show floor offered too loud a din to really judge Go's sound quality. That being said, at this loud conference event, I could hear all of my games' action decently enough to be aware of, say, laser fire. That's a good sign.
For how cheap and simple Oculus Go looks, I had few complaints. Its flimsy strap didn't do a great job clamping the headset to my face—just good enough, but I found myself fine-tuning the fit in all of my demos—but the relatively light weight was still comfortable enough. More important, I was impressed by the Go's breathability. I never noticed heat feeling particularly trapped in my face (which is a common issue for my sweaty self when testing VR headsets at busy conventions).
All of which is to say: Oculus Go, at least in its first-generation version, will not be the be-all, end-all hardware to put the world's best VR experiences in people's faces. The lack of true 6DOF means that some of the best low-poly VR experiences, from simple-yet-awesome arcade games to astonishing short films, won't translate to Oculus Go (even though many of them could run on lower-powered hardware like Go, at least based on what I saw in my demos).
For now, a lack of 6DOF might be the only sacrifice needed to get a quality, sexy 3D headset down to a $199 price point. More testing will be needed to confirm if Go's hardware and eventual software library will prove a perfect match—and we're still waiting on a release date beyond "early 2018" for Go's launch to start answering that question.
Additionally, Oculus is still loudly teasing "one more thing" that could fulfill the no-wires-attached VR dream: Oculus Santa Cruz, a higher-powered 6DOF headset. I tested its prototype last year, and Oculus let me test a slightly updated model on Wednesday, which is nearly identical, save the fact that it's somewhat lighter (a good sign). Worth noting: Liu hinted to that system's controller receiving a significant update, as he pointed out how many current VR devs want Santa Cruz's controller to have the same ABXY buttons as on Oculus Touch.
But that device still doesn't have a price or release window, and Oculus is still testing it out in demo rooms with bizarre line patterns drawn on its ceilings. Until we have any sense that this thing will exist and work in actual living rooms, Oculus only has the quality-and-compromise Go to lean on in the no-wires VR ecosystem.