2018 is set to be the year of standalone VR. Oculus Go, Santa Cruz, Lenovo Mirage Solo, Pico Neo; there's a swarm of headsets promising to deliver that seamless slip-on jump-in virtual reality that has long been promised. I love the high-end headsets like the Rift and Vive, but oh boy, it can be a hassle to get going. Once I've booted up the PC, untangled the inevitable mess of wires and, sometimes, updated the drivers, my enthusiasm is usually dampened.
The Oculus Go, which is being shown off for the first time at GDC 2018, is all about jumping into VR without the hassle. This is a headset that slots in between the Gear VR and PC-powered Rift in quality, price, and to some degree the target market. There's only so much that a mobile chip can run right now, but having finally played with it I can say that Oculus has achieved its goal of a headset worthy of the mainstream, even if there are a couple of places it's left wanting. I'll get to those.
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But first, that design. The Go's plain grey colour and fit reminded me a lot of the Google Daydream View, and considering the View is one of the most comfortable headsets out there, that's not a bad thing. There are three straps on the Go to get it sitting tight on the face, and once I'd spent a bit of time fiddling it was sitting light and snug.
But unlike the View and other mobile VR headsets, there's no phone to slide inside, so you really just pick it up, put it on and, well, go. There's a power button on the top of the headset as well as a volume rocker, but that's it. Then there's the controller, which is also pretty bare. It has a touchpad for the thumb, a trigger on the back, and two buttons for menus and recalibrating yourself should you go slightly off-centre.
It's simple, and that's the point. For my demo I first got to play a game called They Suspect Nothing, in which you're led through a series of mini-games to prove that you're a robot and not, in fact, a human. In another, Anshar Wars 2, I used my head to control a spaceship and blasted enemies with the controller.
The visual quality of the Go is much sharper than I was expecting. It's running a 2560 x 1440 resolution, and it's crisp. In a talk at GDC Oculus revealed that the Go will support refresh rates up to 72Hz and make use of fixed foveated rendering, lowering the quality of the picture in your peripheral vision to get more grunt out of the engine. You shouldn't notice it unless you look for it. I certainly didn't.
Even with all that considered, the graphical quality of the Go will be closer to the Gear VR than the Rift. Without the power of a PC it can't power something like Lone Echo or Robo Recall, at least not without concessions. For people who can easily pick up a cheap Gear VR shell, that'll make Go a harder sell. I do think there's a desire for VR that doesn't mean sacrificing your phone, but how big that market is right now, it's hard to say.
The other compromise Oculus has made to get to the $200 price is positional tracking, meaning you won't be able to walk around in VR. To me this is the most notable omission. It was most noticable in a VR version of Catan, where I was playing against other people who had Rift headsets. I instinctively tried to lean into the board and the whole room moved with me; it was a little nauseating. Meanwhile players with the Rift had the luxury of depth.
The controller is similarly 3DoF (three degrees of freedom) so I could wave it left to right, point and click on things, but I couldn't move it backwards and forwards, as it lacks the depth perception. The Oculus Touch controllers detect your finger placement, so you can throw gestures like thumbs-ups and finger-points. The Go controller is simpler, but I could still perform those gestures in Catan by sliding my thumb around the touchpad. It's not as intuitive, but it works.
Oculus sees you sitting down on the couch and picking this up off the coffee table for a spot of gaming, and while I don't doubt that vision will play out, standalone rivals like the Vive Focus and Lenovo Mirage Solo will offer room-scale technologies. Those headsets are, however, more expensive.
What I noticed maybe even more when using the Go was my nose. My real one, not my virtual one. The Go has a pretty hefty light gap, and maybe my nose is unusually small, but I couldn't help but notice the gulf left at the bottom of the headset. I understand why that can be useful when you drop the controller or want to check your footing, but it's also distracting. Hopefully with more time, it's something I'll just learn to ignore.
The Go also offers built-in audio, which comes through some tiny speakers built into the strap adjustors. But there's also a headphone jack, and in the din of GDC's Moscone Center the built-in speakers were drowned out, so I was given a pair of headphones to use instead. I do like that Oculus has included audio in the headset, making it feel like the whole package.
I only got a small glimpse of the user interface and a lot of what's on the Rift is here too. There's a store for browsing games, a library for playing them, and tools to record and share footage to various social media platforms (duh, Facebook).
The Go is part of a change in the VR landscape, but who is this headset for? With Gear VR already offering a great mobile experience, that question is harder to answer. But while the Go isn't the most technically impressive of the standalone headsets, it's incredibly easy to use, and for those people who don't like giving up their smartphone to VR – and who don't want to shell out for a new PC – this headset might find its home.