Facebook's $399 Oculus Quest is powerful, but it still doesn't solve the basic problems with virtual reality

Key Points
  • Facebook's Oculus Quest will go on sale early next year for $399.
  • The device is the most powerful portable virtual-reality headset, but you need a lot of space to play and there's no killer app yet.
This photo from Oculus shows what it might be like to play it in an apartment. 

Facebook on Wednesday unveiled the Oculus Quest, the company's long-awaited, standalone virtual-reality headset that will go on sale in early 2019 for $399. I had a chance to try out two demos on the device.

The Oculus Quest's main advantage over other standalone VR headsets is its motion tracking technology. Unlike other portable headsets, the Quest is able to determine the motion of user's head turns, hand gestures and overall body movement.

These capabilities were showcased on "Project Tennis Scramble," a demo developed by Armature Studio. In the game, users play tennis as colorful avatars in a cartoon world, running around and swinging their arms in real life to move their avatars on the virtual court and hit the animated balls.

The Quest perfectly tracked my swings and the demo was a blast to play, especially when it emphasized elements of a tennis match that could only be possible in a virtual world, such as substituting the tennis racket and tennis ball for a cricket bat and ball.

Whether a demo like Project Tennis Scramble can ever succeed as a consumer game is an entirely different question.

Such a scenario requires that users have someone around to help them put on the Quest properly. They'll also need access to rooms large enough to safely run around swinging their arms, blind to the real world, without breaking anything. For many folks, that type of space just isn't available.

Just take a look at this photo, provided by Oculus, that suggests how it might be played in an apartment. Try to imagine the player, unable to see anything, getting through a virtual tennis game without running into the walls or furniture.


Now look at the demo space Facebook actually used at its Oculus 5 conference. That's a lot of space! If you need a whole tennis court, why not just play a real game of tennis?

An attendee plays a virtual reality tennis game on the Oculus Quest at Facebook's Oculus 5 event in September 2018.
Sal Rodriguez | CNBC

Besides the spatial requirements, the Quest has other issues.

On "Face Your Fears 2," a demo developed by Turtle Rock Studios, I found myself underwhelmed by the graphic-rendering abilities of the Quest. The horror game looked just fine, but it pales in comparison to the PlayStation 4 games I play every day.

I also felt nauseated when I was playing.

The demo required that I walk around, but the size of the room limited how much I could actually move, forcing me to use the Quest's control joysticks to move the character. That felt unnatural and gave me motion sickness.

Another challenge for the Quest will simply be content. The two experiences I got to try were fine as demos, but there's no chance I would ever drop $399 for the ability to play them. Oculus needs a killer title to draw in casual consumers, and it doesn't have one yet.

The company said it will have more than 50 titles ready at launch. It also showed a short preview of "Vader Immortal: A Star Wars VR Series," an experience coming next year that will focus on Darth Vader. That title will surely attract some "Star Wars" fans.

Finally, there's the question of battery life. The company declined to disclose any information on the battery, which raises doubts about users' ability to play on the Quest for extended stretches of time.

The Quest has promise, but unless you've got $399, a large vacant room, someone to help you put on the headset each time you want to play and faith that great content will arrive, you may want to wait before lining up for this gadget.

Facebook announces new Oculus Quest VR headset
Facebook announces new Oculus Quest VR headset