Oculus Go, the newest virtual reality headset from the Facebook-owned company, isn’t a flashy piece of hardware.
The $199 Oculus Go is Oculus’ third major product release, and it occupies a similar niche to the mobile Gear VR, which offers affordable but limited VR experiences. The Oculus Go’s big draw isn’t raw power or total immersion. Like the Gear VR, it doesn’t track a full range of movement, just the rotation of your head and a small remote control. But instead of being a fusion of phone and plastic shell, it’s a single self-contained device — and Oculus is selling it by promising optimization, accessibility, and convenience.
The Oculus Go, built in partnership with Xiaomi, is aggressively nondescript. It’s a smooth gray headset with a couple of low-profile ports and buttons, as well as a soft gray head strap. The Oculus Go takes a few design cues from the Oculus Rift, like a plastic strip that makes tightening the strap easier. It feels less flawlessly precision-engineered than the Rift, though. A prominent seam between its side and front panels makes the headset look a lot cheaper than it feels, and where the Rift was carefully balanced, the Oculus Go is still front-heavy — after all, there’s a whole computer on your face.
That said, the Oculus Go looks and feels exponentially better than the clunky Gear VR. It doesn’t need bulky plastic elements like phone clamps, and the new head strap — which is split in the back — distributes weight more comfortably. (It also creates space for a bun or ponytail, if you’ve got long hair.)
Oculus has removed the focus dial and the Gear VR’s side controls. The latter makes it a little less convenient since the separate controller is now mandatory. But the controller itself is majorly improved. It has almost the same layout as the Gear VR: a molded plastic base with a front trigger, a top trackpad, and a pair of buttons. But the trackpad is smoothly integrated into the body now, and both the trackpad and trigger feel nicely clicky, based on the half-hour I spent with them.
We still don’t know the Oculus Go’s internal specs, and it’s hard to test performance in a controlled demo environment. For now, the Oculus Go seems to look and work just fine with Gear VR games. It’s a little grainy and blinkered, like any VR headset, but it’s probably less prone to problems like getting dust and hair on the display because you’re not constantly removing the screen from the headset.
Oculus is selling the same games with a higher sticker price, but Oculus Go can reach places the Gear VR can’t
The Oculus Go’s hardware doesn’t throw up any red flags, and it has very clear improvements over the Gear VR, particularly the controller. But that’s not what will really determine its success. Oculus has to explain why people should pay more money for experiences they could get on the cheaper Gear VR, even if Oculus is promising better performance in the all-in-one device. Since many Samsung owners have gotten the Gear VR for free, and VR apps still don’t have mass-market appeal, that’s a tough sell.
But Oculus Go can reach markets Gear VR can’t, primarily the massive base of iPhone users — who are currently inaccessible to both Oculus and its rival platform Google Daydream. Even if the sticker price is higher, the Oculus Go is a lot cheaper than the combined cost of a Samsung phone and Gear VR. And the sticker price isn’t that much higher, since the Gear VR got a price bump from $99 to $129 last year.
Standalone VR also fixes some of mobile VR’s logistical issues. You aren’t effectively disabling your phone by putting it in a headset, draining battery you’ll need for something else or navigating the interface-within-an-interface of a VR launcher app. None of these are huge barriers, but when VR doesn’t really have a “killer app” drawing people into headsets, any barrier is a real problem.
While this is the first time we’ve seen it, the Oculus Go is rumored to launch in just a couple of months at Facebook’s F8 conference. So we’ll know soon enough whether the Oculus Go lives up to Oculus’ claims of greatness.
Correction: An original version of this article referred to "Go" as the product name; Oculus says the headset is always the "Oculus Go."
Photography by Adi Robertson / The Verge