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Oculus is trying to make the Quest the only home headset that matters

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Oculus has spent years selling virtual reality fans on a diverse ecosystem of products. At last year’s Oculus Connect developer conference, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg showed off a family of headsets for different kinds of VR: the low-end Oculus Go, the tethered Oculus Rift, and the midrange Oculus Quest. This year, Oculus’ message was subtler, but no less clear: there’s only one headset that matters for consumers, and it’s the Quest.

Up until this point, Oculus has clearly explained why people should want its three flagship devices in their homes. (The Samsung Gear VR still exists, but Oculus admits it’s essentially dead.) The Oculus Go is cheaper and has its own ecosystem of video-focused apps and simple games, but it doesn’t offer full positional tracking or virtual hands. The Rift is for people who want VR without any limitations on how big or resource-intensive a game can be. The Quest is Oculus’ stab at “mainstream” VR. It has similar capabilities to the Rift, but it doesn’t require buying any additional equipment.

But this week’s Oculus Connect keynote undercut this framework. First, Zuckerberg revealed Oculus Link — an upcoming feature that will let people plug their Oculus Quest into a computer to play Rift games. “Your Quest is basically a Rift now, too,” he said. Then, Oculus product manager Stephanie Lue said 50 Oculus Go apps were being ported to the Quest, complete with free upgrades (until the end of the year) for people who bought the Oculus Go version.

Oculus also effectively introduced a new Quest-exclusive controller: your hands. An update next year will add controller-free finger tracking capabilities to the built-in Quest cameras. It will be an experimental feature at first and probably never a primary interface for the current-generation Quest. But it should let people perform simple interactions even without Oculus Touch controllers and play games specifically designed for fine finger motion.

Notably, Oculus hasn’t even suggested this will come to the Rift, despite the Rift S also using built-in cameras. Oculus has claimed that the Rift S is a “gold standard” for VR gaming. In an interview with The Verge, Facebook special gaming initiatives head Jason Rubin suggested that the Rift S was still a high-end Quest alternative in some ways. “Rift S has one extra sensor and it does a better job of tracking over Quest. There are good reasons to buy Rift S,” he said.

That doesn’t change the fact that Oculus is debuting a big new feature on its midrange headset first. Beyond that sensor, the Rift S doesn’t offer many other high-end options. As Devindra Hardawar at Engadget has pointed out, it’s got a lower-resolution screen and a barely higher refresh rate than the Quest.

If Oculus Link actually works, and you’re a normal person who likes to play or watch VR experiences at home, there’s basically no reason to buy anything but a Quest. It offers a huge jump in capabilities over the Oculus Go, which makes it easily worth the extra $200. (Almost nobody needs a VR headset right now. So if you’re going to get one, it’s worth spending more on something that expands your options so much.) Even if you primarily use VR with a gaming PC, the Quest adds a lot of functionality over a Rift S for the same $399 price. And it’s clearly where Oculus is focusing its efforts right now, so it might be faster to get future updates as well.

The Quest is where Oculus has the greatest advantage because there’s nothing quite like it on the market. Oculus’ former flagship, the Rift, has several major competitors, including Valve, which has outdone the Rift with its high-end Index headset. But the Quest’s biggest US competition is the upcoming HTC Vive Cosmos, which remains untested. It also isn’t a fully wireless headset right now; it’s just a tethered product with a wireless adapter.

The Quest is where Oculus is focusing its efforts in the near future. During his speech at Connect, Oculus chief scientist Michael Abrash discussed new “half dome” prototypes with lighter designs and increased fields of view. But he said next-generation VR will be arriving “not any time soon.”

That doesn’t mean Oculus will ditch the Rift S or Oculus Go just yet. The Rift S is just fine if you’re at an arcade, game studio, or other business with no interest in mobile VR. Its ring-top design is also more comfortable than the Quest’s, so people who spend long stretches of time in VR might prefer it. (Again, this is assuming that Link really does make the Quest a suitable Rift substitute.)

Similarly, the Oculus Go is a good cheaper option for specific scenarios. More passive VR experiences haven’t proven as commercially viable as game-like ones that benefit from hand and positional tracking. Oculus CTO John Carmack said this week that “we have just not stirred the pot correctly” for content like VR photography and video, noting that nobody had found “the Instagram of immersive media.” Outside people’s homes, though, VR video is still a core part of training modules at companies like Walmart where a rich user experience is less important than getting core ideas across.

But both of these devices seem aimed at mopping up the edge markets that Oculus can’t capture with one headset, not building a lineup of equally (if differently) appealing products. That makes sense because Oculus was always taking a risk by releasing so many different VR headsets. Today, those releases look like Oculus providing a gentle on-ramp to the Quest — and, in retrospect, it might have been a smart move.

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