Surprise! Oculus released a new virtual reality headset today. The Oculus Go standalone headset is now for sale at Amazon, Newegg, and Best Buy starting at $199—yes, $199, with no other hardware required—following a retail-launch unveil at Facebook’s annual F8 conference.
What’s more, Oculus sent us a working headset last week for the sake of a review—and I have no shortage of thoughts about what Oculus has gotten right with its first “budget” VR product. Before I break down performance, software, features, and limitations, I want to set the scene by rewinding to another era in which a “futuristic” gadget sector began plummeting in price.
Let’s travel back to the very beginnings of the portable MP3 player market.
In 2000, devices like the Rio and Nomad rapidly cashed in on Napster fever, but high prices, low memory, and serious limitations littered the pre-iPod era. Yet I recall this time fondly because of one odd device: a portable CD player that could also read MP3s. I could burn a dozen albums onto a standard CD-R, then play it on an affordable Discman clone known as the Genica MPTrip (which, if you’re wondering, I discovered on Ars Technica’s forums).
This player was bulky and ugly with awful buttons and iffy skip protection (remember skip protection?), but for a few years, I loved it. I remember riding the bus or driving between distant cities and listening to complete album after complete album, with no CD switching or song repetition, and feeling like the future was now. Or, at least, the future that I could afford was now.
Why am I bringing this up in an Oculus article? Because while putting the Go—a standalone, no-wires, no-phone-needed VR headset—through its paces, I couldn’t help but rewind time to a serviceable, lacking, and affordable glimpse at the future of how I’d interact with technology.
Oculus may not much care for this weird description, but its new Go headset is the Genica MPTrip of its time. Here is a comfortable, solid-performance headset, with a better pixel resolution than the pricier, PC-specific Rift, that can deliver an acceptable-compromise dive into the VR difference. No more coordinating phones with plastic VR shells or slapping phones into cardboard cutouts or zapping your phone battery to try out unoptimized “VR” content. The Go is not perfect, but for many people, we recommend spending $199 right now to have a good, wire-free time in the bustling-yet-fractured Go ecosystem.
It’s Go time
Oculus Go, as seen in the above gallery, is a standalone VR headset with a single, one-handed controller. It weighs about a pound (470g) and comes with a cloth-and-elastic strap that wraps around the head. Even if you’ve never used a VR headset, this headstrap makes instant-fitting sense: pull it over the back of your head, and its full shape and support structure fleshes out.
|SPECS AT A GLANCE: Oculus Go|
|SCREEN||2560×1440 5.5″ (538ppi) fast-switching LCD with standard 60Hz refresh, “overclocked” 72Hz refresh|
|OS||Android 7.1.2 Nougat|
|CPU||Quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 (two 2.3GHz Kryo HP cores and two 2.15GHz Kryo cores)|
|STORAGE||32GB (64GB for $249 model)|
|NETWORKING||802.11b/g/n/ac, Bluetooth 4.1, GPS|
|PORTS||Micro-USB, 3.5mm headphone jack|
|SIZE||190 x 105 x 115 mm|
|WEIGHT||470 g (1.04 lbs)|
|OTHER PERKS||Built-in speakers, Oculus Go controller, proximity sensor, 3DOF sensors (both headset and controller)|
When you put the headset on, a face-sensor wakes the screen, and a prompt asks you to hold down the “menu” button on the Go controller. You’ll do this every time to calibrate your forward-facing position and the relative position of your hand. Once your Go is unlocked, a floating menu of app and game icons appears in virtual space, and you use the Go controller as a pointing device to pick through content and menus. It also serves as a button-and-motion controller in any games and apps you load.
Almost immediately, the Go makes its “sit-down” VR limitations apparent—and these are hard to ignore, whether you call yourself a VR connoisseur or a novice. Before breaking these down, let’s talk about where Go fits in the consumer-headset ecosystem. In other words, some of Go’s criticisms are honestly tempered by its holy-cow $199 price point for the 32GB model (or $249 for the 64GB one).
Recently, the path to “cheap,” accessible VR required nothing short of a pricey smartphone. Whether you buy into Samsung’s GearVR ecosystem or Google options like Daydream and Cardboard, you’re expected to slap a phone into a headset, like bread into a toaster. An add-on headset’s lenses then translate whatever stereo image appears on your phone screen, and if you paid for something more elaborate than Cardboard, you can also expect a simple hand controller and additional motion-sensing capabilities. Otherwise, you commonly control apps and games with nothing more than the direction of your visual “gaze.”
This is in contrast to pricier home-VR solutions like Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and PlayStation VR, which add complications to the mix: wires, a host computer or console, button-loaded controllers, and attached tracking devices. (Rift and PSVR use RGB webcams, while Vive opts for dumber IR boxes that the headset itself recognizes.) Even if you select the cheapest option in that list, the PSVR (whose total required bundle starts at roughly $500), you’re still in wires-and-camera territory. (Some Windows Mixed Reality sets don’t require tracking boxes, at least, but the rest still applies.)
Oculus Go differs from both of these camps in significant ways, but it more closely resembles the phone-based one. The difference there, of course, is that this headset is a pre-built, all-in-one product, so there’s no phone-toaster requirement. But its origins as a smartphone-like device hide behind a few screws.
Crack the Go open and you’ll find a motherboard loaded with typical smartphone parts, particularly the Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 system-on-chip (SoC). You may remember that Snapdragon model number from late 2016, when it debuted in flagship phones like the first Google Pixel (and was itself nothing more than a marginal, clock-bump update for the Snapdragon 820). The rest of the spec package resembles Android’s late-2016 era, as well, with 3GB of RAM, 32GB of onboard memory, and performance numbers that fall just shy of 2016’s Google Pixel. (If you’re keeping score, Chinese phone manufacturer Xiaomi is largely responsible for Go’s hardware, and the loud “MI” logo on its side serves as a reminder.)
Also, much like phone-driven VR headsets, Oculus Go only recognizes three degrees of freedom (3DOF). This means you can expect realistic VR effects when you rotate or tilt your head. As soon as you lean in any direction, however, the effect is broken. Go does not offer positional tracking while seated, and it certainly doesn’t work if you get up and walk. The Samsung GearVR operates with the same limitation, and as a result, Oculus Go’s app selection is pretty much identical to that of GearVR’s.