Oculus VR had one big hardware surprise to reveal at its annual Connect developer conference on Wednesday: the all-new standalone Quest virtual reality headset. The Quest is a culmination of Oculus’ last five years of VR work, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg called it a major step toward getting a billion people into VR.
But the following day, Oculus chief technology officer John Carmack — a video game industry legend who is responsible for creating seminal shooter titles like Wolfenstein, Doom, and Quake — was more straightforward: the Oculus Quest is a gaming console. “Realistically, we are going to wind up competing with the Nintendo Switch,” Carmack told the crowd. Where the Oculus Go headset is “80 percent media and 20 percent gaming,” the Oculus Quest is emphatically gaming-focused. In fact, it’s arguably the first VR headset to offer the perks that have drawn people to products from Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo.
Carmack argues that the Oculus Quest, like the Nintendo Switch, reorients how, where, and to what extent you can enjoy games. Oculus isn’t trying to replace its high-end Rift headset in the same way Nintendo isn’t trying to replace your PC or Xbox. But it’s building something that’s portable and user-friendly while providing some of the same experiences you’d find on a higher-powered device.
More generally, the Oculus Quest offers consumers a lot of the same benefits as a traditional game console: the plug-and-play nature, the cohesive software platform, and the built-in content library, all without additional costs beyond that of a television. (The Oculus Quest, thankfully, has its display built in.) The Sony PlayStation VR offers some of these benefits, but it’s positioned as an accessory to a console, not a console in its own right. The HTC Vive, meanwhile, has its games spread across multiple PC-based services.
Nate Mitchell, Oculus’ head of Rift, agreed with this characterization in an interview with The Verge. “We hope that [the Quest] delivers that console-level experience for people, certainly,” he said. He also describes the audience for the Oculus Quest as similar to the audience for consoles in general.
“I think for Quest, the question is, ‘Do you have a PC?’ The reality is a lot of my friends don’t,” Mitchell says. In the past, that’s meant that many people who may have been interested in VR not for the novelty of the experience, but for the actual content — games like Epic’s Robo Recall and Crytek’s The Climb — haven’t been able to try any of it due to the barrier to entry. As a result, they tend to write off VR as a whole as something that’s not for them, at least not until it’s less expensive and more accessible.
“They want that experience, but they haven’t been able to get there in terms of taking the leap into buying a PC,” Mitchell adds. “And so I think Quest is going to be the perfect product for these people who are gamers who have been waiting for their moment to get into VR, but haven’t quite had the right avenue.”
Of course, it’s far too early to say whether the Quest will become a better-selling, more mainstream product for Oculus than the first-generation Rift. And Mitchell makes it clear that he sees the Rift as the current “gold standard” for VR experiences going forward; Oculus says a title like Ready at Dawn’s Lone Echo would be difficult to port until the chipset improves to the point of satisfying a majority of users.
But the Quest is the first headset that offers nearly all the benefits of the Rift without any of the expensive requirements that have prohibited VR from catching on outside the enthusiast and PC gaming crowds. It also takes the promise of mobile VR — the idea that you can take it anywhere and use it without restriction — and puts it into a much more capable device with full tracking and motion controllers.
Although it will retail for $400, which is slightly more than your standard PlayStation or Switch, the Quest is still the very first time that the promise of VR in the way Oculus envisions it truly taking off will be available to a mass market. Whether this device, or one, two, three, or perhaps four iterations down the line, is the one that breaks through to the mainstream is somewhat beside the point. It’s clear Oculus sees its future in cordless, self-contained headsets that operate like gaming consoles. Now, it just needs to attract the biggest names in game development to make new titles and a find that winning formula of affordability and performance that makes a VR headset a true competitor for people’s time and money.