The lack of mainstream interest in virtual reality hasn’t deterred Facebook from spending billions of dollars on it.
This week, Facebook held its Oculus Connect event in San Jose, Calif. where CEO Mark Zuckerberg revealed the company’s newest VR headset—the Oculus Quest. The headset doesn’t require a personal computer to operate or sensor towers to track one’s movement like its sibling Rift. This makes it possible to move around more easily in a virtual environment without tripping over physical wires or wearing a cumbersome backpack that contains a PC.
The Quest won’t be available until sometime in spring 2019, which could be a full six months from now. It’s odd timing considering that consumer tech companies typically want their products to be released before the busy holiday season.
Keeping in mind that the Connect event is primarily for developers, Facebook probably wants to entice coders to create more content for the device before the headset publicly debuts. That way, consumers could have more of a reason to buy it.
Fortune used the Quest, which will cost $399, with several VR demos that give a sense of how untethered VR headsets allow for more realistic movements.
Here’s what they were like:
Playing tennis in virtual reality
Running across a digital tennis court with the older Rift headset would be impossible because it must be tethered to a computer. But because Quest is wireless, users can sprint in real life while having their movements incorporated into a VR tennis match.
Taking inspiration from Nintendo’s popular Wii Sports game that premiered over a decade ago, Project Tennis Scramble goes for a zany, cartoonish aesthetic rather than trying to recreate Wimbledon. Silly looking palm trees decorate the multi-colored virtual courts, while my opponent looked like a munchkin with a comically oversized head.
The game itself isn’t very challenging, and it was clearly designed so that hitting the ball — which can morph into amusing objects like a beach ball — is easy. I did wish the headset’s tracking was a bit more accurate so that swinging my virtual tennis racket had a more natural feel.
Perhaps the most surreal part of the game was the opening segment, in which the disembodied head of Oculus vice president of content Jason Rubin hovers over the court and introduces himself. It would make sense if the game designer’s were able to get a tennis star like Serena Williams to psyche up players before a match, but for now, Rubin will have to do. Presumably, his appearance is meant to pump up Oculus developers at the Connect event.
Get scared in virtual reality
In the demo for Face Your Fears 2, players explore the outskirts of a haunted mansion in a scene that’s like a combination of the rural backwoods of Deliverance mixed with the gothic styling of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
There wasn’t much challenge in the game other than to walk down a path, enter a barn, and step into an eerie mansion while picking up items like hammers or keys to help open doors.
The game is essentially a series of jump scares—the cinematic technique of suddenly introducing scary characters or frightening images to a scene accompanied by a booming sound. For instance, stumbling around in a barn triggers dozens of virtual spiders to emerge from the ground and surround the player. Opening the door to the mansion causes a zombie to appear and reach for the player like a scene from a horror movie.
Punching virtual reality crash test dummies
In Superhot VR, players dodge punches from what look like all-red crash test dummies, while planning counter moves.
When players move, time in the game progresses in the futuristic-looking waiting rooms, allowing the enemies to advance their attacks. When players stand still, time comes to a halt, providing time to strategize.
During the game, players can also pick up guns or ninja stars, which comes in handy when enemies are too far away to smash with a fist.
Experience Star Wars in VR
The most thrilling VR experience at Connect didn’t involve the Quest. Instead, it was a VR installation based on the Star Wars movie franchise, created by the VR production company The Void and Lucasfilm’s ILMxLAB VR studio.
By strapping on a backpack and vest loaded with a computer that powers the company’s custom VR helmets, players walk through a mini maze, akin to the old-school laser tag arenas. The combination of the VR helmets plus the ability to physically move through multiple corridors gives players the illusion that they are actually roaming the halls of a cramped space ship and dodging the occasional laser fire of enemy storm troopers.
Besides the VR helmets, several other additions also heightened the game and made for a more life-like experience. For instance, when I stood still on a moving platform to take me across a huge volcano, I felt hot wind across my body because the installation had air blowers that helped to simulate environmental conditions in the game.
When a storm trooper shot me, I felt a small electrical jolt on my chest from technology in a vest I wore that can mimic the sensation of touch.
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It was the most immersive VR experience I tried at the Connect event, because of The Void’s physical enclosure that was built to coincide with the game.
A software bug during one of the experience’s first scenes resulted in my team having to lift our helmet visors and start over, but I didn’t mind because it was fascinating to see the tiny corridors the designers arranged in real life to help with the overall illusion.
It’s totally impractical as a home-entertainment system or a replacement for a video game console, but as an amusement park ride, it makes for a compelling attraction.