I’m standing in the middle of my living room, but my view is of the deck of a ship. I can hear my actual dog as he pants on the sofa I pushed against my wall so I could spin my head to explore my virtual surroundings. He’s obscured by the Oculus Go strapped to my face. I take a step forward in my living room, and sigh as nothing happens on the deck. I’d hoped the company would use its first portable headset to differentiate itself from the smartphone-based VR competition – competition that offers a similar experience making cheap headsets designed with your high-end smartphone in mind. The thing is, the Oculus Go doesn’t really stick the landing.
Right now, virtual reality on the cheap requires either a piece of cardboard in which you precariously set your smartphone for some barebones “immersive” virtual reality, or headsets like the Samsung Gear VR line or Google Daydream (headsets with models costing anywhere from $90 – $165, which add a much-needed layer of controls (and more comfortable headgear) to the mix, but not much else. Good VR usually requires a high-end Android smartphone like the Google Pixel 2 or the last few flagship Samsung Galaxy devices, but if you’ve got one through your wireless carrier, you can just get the corresponding headset for cheaper than an Oculus Go.
Still, VR-compatible Android smartphones are pricey, and it’s not like everyone’s got $1000 to drop on one, along with an extra couple of hundred for a new VR headset, for recreational purposes.
At $US200 Oculus Go (no Australian pricing yet, sorry!) is a good deal, and obviates the need for your smartphone and that headset dock in which you stick it. At first glance, it shares the same visual DNA with the Oculus Rift, and is much easier on the eyes than its closest competition, Lenovo’s $US400 Mirage Solo, the only other wireless headset for consumers. Both have the same rounded rectangular shape resembling a pair of lab goggles, or a periscope viewfinder, but the Go has a more refined, fabric and plastic design compared to the Mirage Solo’s more technological aesthetic. Still, the Oculus Go doesn’t wow in terms of looks, a bummer when you consider it’s the company’s third VR headset.
Inside the HMD is the soul of a smartphone, a last-generation Snapdragon 821 processor, to be specific. The ageing silicon shows in the occasional momentary UI freeze, or when rendering multiple complex objects, but unless you’re actively hunting for minor slowdowns, its performance is in line with what you would expect from a high-end smartphone. Latency was rarely an issue. Its display is a bright 15cm 2560 x 1440 LCD seen through the headset’s two lenses. It also has 32GB of non-expandable internal storage (the 64GB version costs $US250). It charges via Micro-USB (lame), and will last about two hours before it needs more juice. The specs look good — great even when you consider how cheap it is.
In terms of movement through virtual space, the Go keeps the price down by sticking to a more limiting three degrees of freedom: tilting your head side to side, forward and backward, and left to right. The more expensive Lenovo Mirage Solo uses front-facing cameras to offer six degrees of freedom, which means you can move up and down, forward and backward, and left and right, in real and virtual space (and get a warning before you walk into something).
There’s also a built-in microphone and a pair of integrated speakers that respond to your movements in VR, but the latter leaks enough audio to disturb whoever’s next to you should you crank up the volume. (I’m sure the weirdo flailing around next to them in virtual reality wasn’t the least bit annoying.) You’re better off using headphones through the Go’s 3.5mm jack.
Since you’re strapping a headset to your face, you can expect it to weigh a bit more than your eyeglasses. That said, the Oculus Go is a comfortable experience, and weighs just over a pound. Should you decide to engage in a VR marathon, take the extra time to adjust its three head straps, which eases the pressure placed on the bridge of your nose. Speaking of eyeglasses, the Go comes with a rubbery insert providing extra padding for glasses, but you can also get prescription VR lenses for your Go.
The Go’s included controller is pretty comfortable, and makes me hope they eventually add support for two, similar to the Oculus Rift. Granting users two-handed control would definitely broaden the range of possible interaction inside apps. It would also help differentiate itself from the one-handed competition. But hey, at that $US200 sweet spot, I’m fine with just the one. Besides, no Go games support two-handed controls, and there’s not much to do in the Go’s VR space anyway.
Here’s the thing with the Oculus Go and its app ecosystem: it isn’t that great – at least right now. Many popular games being promoted in Oculus’ app store are just Gear VR ports, which often lack support for the included Go controller. Many games are still designed for use with the controller-free Gear VR, forcing you to point using your head and click with your neutered controller. It sucks, and feels disingenuous on Oculus’ part for showing me the handicapped apps.
It’s like they’re taunting me with this Micro-USB nonsense.
It also highlights the limitations when it comes to freedom of movement. Most games I played involved either shooting zombies and shiny targets, pulling a lever to fix an astromech droid, poking a magical creature, or riding a roller coaster while you struggle to keep your lunch down. The graphical fidelity is not too much different from the visuals I’ve seen on a Pixel 2 XL-powered Google Daydream headset. Virtual tours of foreign countries or museums are intriguing, but only for as long as the minutes-long experiences last. Honestly, I’ve no desire to “travel” around the world in this thing.
There is no incredibly compelling game, no killer app, no truly immersive or engaging experience to be found. What video content there is from partners like WWE, Netflix, or NextVR don’t truly take advantage of the few degrees of freedom offered to you, and often make what you’re watching via your HMD feel less engaging thanks to the poor video quality. It also lacks official Google apps like YouTube, forcing you to watch similar content through Oculus’ own, lesser services. But now that there’s actual hardware to make apps for (and to impulse buy during the holiday season), that might change as developers get up to speed and update their software in the coming months…or years.
The Oculus Go doesn’t care if you’re the coolest barista in Brooklyn. The Oculus Go will make you look like a dork.
Does the Oculus Go do enough for virtual reality to justify its $US200 price? That depends on what you’re looking for. The fact that it’s a self-contained portable VR headset with good visual fidelity is pretty impressive, and would make a novel gift for anyone interested in the concept. If you’ve come into some money, spending your tax return on a cool toy like the Go isn’t the worst decision, especially if you’ve got no intention of buying an Android device or a high-end PC.
But if you’ve already got a fancy Android phone, you can get what amounts to an incredibly similar experience, complete with a comparable selection of apps, for a bit cheaper than the Go. Spending even more on a device like the $US400 ($531) Lenovo Mirage Solo grants you extra perks, like better visuals and more freedom of movement. Still, you’ll have a very similar selection of apps on Google’s Daydream platform, which also suffers from a lack of entertaining software.
The Oculus Go might make portable virtual reality cheap, but is that really what we want?
What the Oculus Go does do is sober my feelings on what to expect from virtual reality. I’ve spent more than a few hours using PC-powered HMDs, smartphone-powered headsets, and the console-specific PlayStation VR. Each has its own set of strengths and weaknesses, and I’ve always been the one spouting the joys of quality virtual reality experiences, even from mobile devices. But what is “quality virtual reality” when the reality presented is so temporarily appealing? The Go, as a device, is most definitely a step forward for the technology. But it, and devices like the Lenovo Mirage Solo, without increasing support from developers, can quickly go from engaging experience to minorly regrettable purchase.
- $US200 makes it an inexpensive, low-risk entry point to virtual reality
- Pitiful selection of smartphone-quality games, with the majority poorly ported from Gear VR
- Fun for a few hours, but lacks more engaging content
- Comfortable headset compared to the competition
- Copycat aesthetic is disappointing