Meta — the company formerly known as Facebook — presented its future-looking vision for the metaverse at its Connect event last Thursday. Even if you love playing chess with ghosts and spending money to keep street art… present (one of Meta’s bleaker ideas), you’re going to be waiting a while before you’re operating in anything that looks like the future Meta imagines.
But the company does offer a somewhat disconnected version of that future right now, and it thinks users might already want to use it. The Oculus Quest 2 virtual reality headset, a comparatively affordable, all-in-one option can already handle some of the non-gaming use cases Meta envisions. The problem is, it’s just not good enough yet to make that vision an enjoyable reality, and Meta’s forthcoming solution might be too expensive to be a real alternative.
VR makes sense for games and exercise — Meta’s vision for mixed reality is dependent on making technology accessible to a mass audience. So far its Quest headsets have been tremendous at doing that, making inside-out tracking and powerful-enough performance standard for $299. There’s still the physical uncomfortableness of strapping a box full of cameras and screens connected to your Facebook account to your face, but for gaming, where you might want to only spend an hour or so in another world anyways, it’s not an issue.
I’ve had a great time solving block puzzles in Cubism and playing Tetris Effect: Connected. And exercise, while definitely a little more awkward in smaller spaces, also works surprisingly well with a Quest 2. Supernatural is a great way to work up a sweat punching and slicing blocks. Beat Saber — which sort of straddles the line between game and exercise in the first place — has a healthy community of people swinging swords to music and uploading their own custom tracks. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Meta already owned Beat Saber’s creators Beat Games, and just last week acquired Within, the creators of Supernatural.
Work, not so much — Of course, Meta would love to have just a bit more of your time. Why not work in VR? So far, while that’s a large part of Meta’s vision of the metaverse, what’s possible on the Quest 2 is far from ideal.
This isn’t entirely a software issue. Horizon Workrooms, Meta’s VR-based meeting, collaborating, and working software is fine. I typed part of this article inside the jerry-rigged, remote desktop software and survived. The real problem is the weight of the headset and the delay between what you do in VR, and what you’re shown through the Quest’s video passthrough.
I sweat enough as it is, I don’t need it at work too.
Workrooms uses the video passthrough the Quest 2 offers to show a ghostly (black and white, no less) image of your hands hovering over the virtual representation of your keyboard. If it’s enabled in settings, you can also double-tap on the side of your headset to have the video feed fill your full field of view. It works in case of emergency or if you need a quick drink of water, but switching back and forth isn’t quite as smooth as I’d like. Also, a combination of the slight lag from the video passthrough and the occasional jitter in the remote desktop is something you can adapt to, but I wouldn’t call it fun. Nor is the video quality itself, which leaves a lot to be desired.
Then there’s actually wearing the device. The Quest 2 comes in at 503 grams, not heavy, but over the course of multiple hours, noticeable. Sweat is acceptable when you’re playing Beat Saber, but feeling the occasional drip after a few hours of Workroom meetings or working in a shared doc feels a little gross. I sweat enough as it is, I don’t need it at work too.
Cambria is an expensive mystery — Meta has a possible solution to these problems in its Project Cambria headset, which promises to offer improved mixed-reality features like better video passthrough, face and eye tracking, and what looks like a more comfortable, single-strap design in 2022; Zuckerberg barely gave us a glimpse of it. Meta says Cambria will target “the high-end of the price spectrum,” which fits with the company’s plan to introduce new technology at a high price and then have those features slowly trickle down to its more affordable headsets.
That means that for now, most people will experience Meta and other companies’ metaverse experiences through entry-level headsets — the still not small purchase of $300 for a Quest 2 or whatever Cambria ends up costing.
Meta’s chief technology officer Andrew Bosworth has also said that the “Quest 2 is going to be in the market for a while — for a long while” in an interview with John Carmack on Twitter Spaces earlier this year. That’s fine and good if you want to try out some VR games, but to help kickstart the metaverse plan the company says it’s pouring billions into? I’m not as convinced. Besides the ethical, philosophical, and practical problems of Meta’s metaverse idea — remember none of this actually exists in a real way yet — the hardware just isn’t quite right. And that might not change for a long while.