Every once in a while, a consumer product comes along that is a generational leap ahead of everything else before it. Think light bulbs instead of oil lamps, the internal combustion engine decommissioning horse carriages; or the telephone supplanting the telegraph. The world as we know it rearranges around these new inventions, society shifts ever so slightly, and the product itself becomes something we just can't live without.
History has a funny way of remembering these pivotal products after the shift has happened. In our mind, we will compare a Porsche 911 with a wooden carriage, chuckle softly - "of course!" - and laugh of all the fools that ever thought horses and carts were the future. In doing so, we forget the time in which the horse itself was the pivotal product. We conveniently ignore decades of research and development, bankruptcies, scorn and grief and colossal failures. We remember the silver bullets we see dashing down the highway every single day; and never the curious, sputtering engines of yesteryear, trailing far behind a reliable horse.
There is always a distinct moment in which such paradigm shifts happen. There is always a product that suddenly turns the bend just the right way; after the years have passed, and the dust has settled, people just look at it and chuckle and go - "of course!".
Facebook's Oculus Quest is one of these products - one of those rare artifacts that clearly split history into before and after. It is one of the most explosively revolutionary products I have ever held in my hand. It is not a beautiful item, it is still quite expensive, clumsy, shoddily built, difficult to acquire and difficult to use.
But it doesn't matter. The car is now faster than the horse.
Oculus Quest is a consumer-grade Virtual Reality headset. Its purpose is pretty clear - at least judging from the marketing materials: it's a screen you strap to your face to play videogames.
Why exactly that's the angle they decided to go for is not a mystery: videogamers have the early adopter's affinity for technology, sufficient disposable income to afford novelty items, and are always constantly on the lookout for the next thrilling (virtual) experience.
But it would be naive to think that Facebook, who acquired Oculus in 2014 for two billion dollars in cash, will stick to addressing just this small slice of the general population. No, their seemingly bottomless budget for R&D is a dead giveaway for Oculus being a much more ambitious project: they are trying to build the next smartphone-class of products.
And for years I chuckled about this idea. Then a global pandemic happened, I bought one, and I stand corrected: this is already the next smartphone-class of products.
You see, much like most revolutionary consumer technology products, VR is both a difficult concept to sell to people who don't have one, and a product that strongly hinges around social acceptance. The easy parallel to make is the one with the smartphone: back in the late early 00s, a phone was not a necessity. Using one in public would have been terribly rude. And of course, the phone itself was heavy, clumsy, dorky-looking, expensive and impractical. Yet walk into any public place in 2020, and you'd be hard-pressed not to find someone typing away on a small screen.
What happened? Phones got cheaper, sleeker, and more people got one. If we want to really pinpoint the product that changed it all, I would be the Nokia 3310 - the first phone that truly addressed the need of the market: long battery life, sturdy, and affordable enough to be useful. Later iterations - Nokia's N-series, Motorola's Razr, Apple's iPhone - built further upon the concept of always-on communication and ultimately changed the world into today's always connected global network.
The Oculus Quest is the Nokia 3310 of VR headsets: it's radically different from all of his predecessors, and while still a clunky product, it shows the way for all what's to come.
The wireless future
Like any pivotal product, the Quest improves on the general concept of VR in three incredibly meaningful ways.
First of all, the Quest is fully wireless. Normal VR headsets depend on a regular computer to generate content to be streamed back to the visor. But the Quest is the first ever product on the market to fully offload the processing into the headset itself: that means a battery and a fully-fledged mobile computer on top of the regular screen-and-lenses setup. And yet it's just marginally heavier than competing headsets: a stunning achievement of mobile computing.
The payoff for this first pivotal change is not just increase in immersion (no more tripping into invisible cables while walking through your virtual world), but, more importantly, a reduction in price. The Quest retails for 450 EUR/399 USD, but a computer is usually between 500 and 1500 EUR: at that price point, the fact the Quest doesn't require an external PC means any competitor in the same space would need to give away their product for free to match the Oculus' value proposition.
Second big change: no more external trackers. Traditional physical tracking in the computing world has traditionally opted for ad-hoc trackers (like motion capture suits or external LIDAR arrays) when absolute accuracy was needed, or infrared/single-camera setups (like Microsoft's Kinect or the Wii motion controllers) for cheap consumer products.
The Oculus turns this, quite literally, inside-out: the headset has four cameras at its corners, that track both its position in space as well as either the controllers or even your hands. This opens a whole slew of possibilities not just in terms of gaming, but generally for productivity interfaces. It is accurate, intuitive, and - the silver bullet of consumer products - it just works.
The third and most important change: the Quest is always connected and runs Android. That means its games and applications run a storefront is tightly managed by Facebook - a walled garden if you will. Compared with the complicated setups previously required for VR, using the Quest is as simple as taking it out of the box - at least conceptually. And with its intuitive interface, wire and tracking-free setup, this all comes together to form a product that is accessible enough for the general consumer.
Across the looking glass
So that gets us to the core question: how does a product like the Quest - with all its improvements - bring the idea of VR from a niche product to a world-changing event?
Much like the original smartphone, the answer itself lies in the critical mass required for adoption. Virtual Reality itself is a useless gimmick, only interesting for videogame addicts. But Social Reality - which is quite blatantly Facebook's ambition for this class of product - utterly changes the way we communicate and interact with people.
I have deliberately refrained from describing how the Oculus Quest feels, because there is absolutely no way to do so in words or videos. When you first put it on the lenses are blurry and uncalibrated; the headset is foreign and heavy. Graphically it is not the same as a screen: the best description I can come up with is: it looks like looking at a screen through a pair of binoculars.
But - and this is the magic point; this is where the swindle really happens - it only takes a few minutes and minimal adjustments for your exceptionally plastic brain to adapt to the new reality. After 10 minutes of wearing a Quest, the virtual world becomes the real world.
The difference between virtual and real then, is that you are on one side of the looking glass, and your friends on the other. Before the Quest, they would have needed a beefy computer, non-negligible technical skills, a spare room and an expensive headset to join you. With Quest, all they need is 399$ of disposable change.
How much did you pay for your last smartphone?
Why it matters
All of the reasons, technical innovations and pivotal changes I've described so far would not matter at all if the Quest didn't have both compelling use case and an emotional component to it.
The use case is obvious. As Ernest Cline writes in Ready Player One, 'people come to the virtual world for all the things they can do, but they stay because of all the things they can be'. The forms of escapism and content consumption that Quest enables are as much of a generational leap as the TV was from the Radio; or the Radio from written longforms. The content that is already on the platform pretty much outpaces anything else that was available one year from launch of any other form of media: some truly immersive experiences, that are impossible anywhere else, and truly represent a souped-up version of reality.
More importantly, and much like reality itself, this paradigm shift lends itself pretty well to a social multiplier. Much like the shift from radio to podcasts, from big labels to 'producing in your garage', from books to blogs, Virtual Reality will greatly benefit to a shift to Social Reality. Having Facebook - the world largest social network - behind Oculus will no doubt accelerate this shift, empowering millions of creators everywhere in the world to bring their vision to the platform.
And there's your emotional component. The Quest sticks like no other object I have ever seen. Way, way more than my first computer, than my first tablet, my first smartphone, and my first internet login - you just need to try it once, and you'll never want this thing to leave your face again. Its potential for virality is scary and amazing at the same time. It is unlike any of the VR headset you've ever tried before; and it is in fact unlike anything else you've ever tried before. And when you have such a strong use case and such a strong emotional component, widespread adoption is only a matter of time.
It's 2020 and the idea of lowering a dorky headset over your head to enter a virtual world sounds weird and foreign to you.
It's 2010 and the idea of talking to your phone to get directions sounds weird and foreign to you.
It's 2000 and the idea of listening to your entire CD collection on your bike sounds weird and foreign to you.
It's 1990 and the idea of always being available for your friends for a quick phone call call sounds weird and foreign to you.
It's 1910 and the idea of driving around in a car instead of a horse carriage sounds weird and foreign to you.
Ten years from now, there will be an Oculus in every household.