Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg says Quest surpassed his expectations and there’s more than 170 pieces of content available for it officially through the Quest store. In addition, a growing sideloading ecosystem led by SideQuest offers developers a route onto the headset with experiments in hand tracking or early testing releases meant to build community without explicit approval from Facebook for store release. We’ve also heard from a number of developers who are seeing some of their strongest sales in VR ever on Quest. Facebook bought Beat Games and Sanzaru Games, and leaks have revealed the “Del Mar” developer kit and “Jedi” controllers.
Still, it is a difficult time for casual technology watchers to understand market viability in VR. While headlines in mainstream publications like Wired and the New York Times are waking up the general public to the standalone VR revolution, Facebook still sells (at the time of this writing) its severely limited Oculus Go hardware. Meanwhile, clickbait writers hungry for pageviews turn off comfort settings in Half-Life: Alyx and cry foul even when one of the best VR games ever made was carefully designed to on-board a wide range of people with maximum comfort.
So what exactly is going on and what’s likely coming in the next couple years?
We believe Facebook is selling its Oculus Quest hardware ($400 or $500 depending on storage) either at cost or even at a (large) loss. Combined with Facebook’s significant ongoing investment in content, and the billions spent annually on research and development, Facebook is making it difficult for competitors to justify entering a hardware market just to lose money for years trying to catch up to what’s already more than half a decade into Zuckerberg’s long-term bet on VR.
All this to say that while Facebook’s non-advertising-related revenue from things like VR still only amounts to roughly $300 million over three months, compared with nearly $18 billion for its overall business in the same period, its unique approach to the market for standalone VR means there’s little to keep that number from growing significantly — already up 80 percent over the year ago quarter — in the years to come.
How will Facebook do it? By making what makes Quest great even better. Here’s what I think that likely means for a future headset that might be based on the “Del Mar” codename.
Before I go any further, let me be clear that demand for the current Quest outstripped supply even before the COVID-19 pandemic. That likely means the priorities for Facebook’s VR division in 2020 are simply to make enough Quests for people to buy, improve the headset with software updates and help developers make or polish apps for the current system.
What comes after that? Here’s what I’d expect to see from Facebook’s next Quest:
No Visual Sacrifices
The first generation of high-quality PC VR headsets set a standard using OLED displays refreshing 90 times every second and recommended specifications for software and PCs meant to make that mark the bare minimum for comfort.
Next generation VR headsets that released in 2019, like the Quest, and even Rift S, fall short of those refresh rates (72 and 80 respectively) while Valve Index can refresh up to 120 or 144 times per second with a superpowered PC. Those refresh rates aren’t the whole picture, though, because some modern headsets also use LCD panels that feature lower persistence than their OLED counterparts. Lower persistence equates to less noticeable blur (aka smearing), but LCD displays also sacrifice deep blacks that can turn dark VR environments into muddy grays.
We think it’s likely Oculus Go goes away soon and the eventual “Del Mar”-based successor to Quest might be able to display visuals up to 90 frames per second — either in standalone mode or PC VR mode. I’d even bet on an OLED to get those darker blacks. No matter the actual number on a specification sheet for a finalized Quest successor, I think Facebook is likely making it a priority to make the next Quest not a visual step down from either its first or second generation of PC VR. It is just too valuable to Facebook for them to be able to market a future Quest as being their best VR display ever, and for it to work at increased fidelity compared to their current offerings either in standalone or PC VR modes.
Better Hand And Controller Tracking
Oculus Quest controller-free hand tracking carries an “experimental” tag and, though it does appear to be an active goal at Facebook to improve the fidelity of the input system such that some games will gain support for it — it remains an open question how far Facebook can take the technology on current generation hardware.
A next generation Quest, though, might feature cameras that sample the environment at higher rates (or feature more cameras) to track both hand movements and controllers faster and with greater reliability. Our recent analysis of the “Jedi’ driver code suggests there could in fact be such a mode for next generation Oculus Touch controllers. While I also hope for better haptics in future Oculus controllers, tracking is believed by some researchers to be the single most important feature of any VR system. And that means any improvements in Quest hardware to the tracking of hands and controllers will pay dividends to immersion, and therefore Facebook’s revenue growth.
Removing weight from the front of Quest is probably the first thing anyone who uses a Quest wants after even five minutes of usage. We’ve found great success with the VR Power battery pack and building our own Frankenquest just by counterbalancing this front-heavy design.
If Facebook engineers can fix this problem in the next Quest by, say, moving certain parts of the system to the back of the head (like the battery) we think that’ll be a huge improvement all on its own. If they can do it while achieving the other improvements listed above? That’s going to not only make standalone VR more comfortable and inviting for a wider range of people, but would also encourage a lot of original Quest owners to upgrade while selling or passing on their original systems to new VR owners.
Facebook’s Quest could also use improvements to its audio experience. The Index off-ear speakers are a revelation and there’s even a well-funded Kickstarter project looking to make that approach to audio an add-on for any VR headset. Still, while I’d love the built-in audio on Quest to improve, I’m not convinced it’s as important as the other things the next Quest is likely to have.
Product design is about making trade-offs and Facebook designers have shown they’re ready to make shrewd and smart choices about what features to focus on in their products. Making VR easier to use by making software do incredible things — like rapid room-scale setup — all while decreasing the price of the overall package is the theme of Facebook’s first few years of VR product development. I expect that trend to continue into the next generation.
If “Del Mar” truly becomes a Quest successor — or perhaps an add-on to its product line — and hits these notes in the next two years, would Rift S stay in market even as a severely discounted PC-only option? Ripping the beta label off Oculus Link or building a wireless link might make the original Quest a formidable entry level PC VR headset with the considerable benefits of standalone and a price discounted below its current $400 level. Meanwhile, whatever “Del Mar” becomes could take the $400 and $500 VR pricing tiers while making fewer comfort and visual tradeoffs as compared to the gap between the current Rift S and Quest.
If Facebook is having trouble making enough Quests, focusing their VR efforts even further around the Quest product line might enable them to actually keep up with demand. To be clear, I’m not suggesting an end to the Rift or Go product lines — I believe there are markets for PC VR and lightweight social connections wherever you are — but I think Facebook is likelier to focus near term on hitting more home runs in the Quest ballpark than playing those other games. VR headsets which are comfortable to wear all day or sense more of your face movements for better social connections anywhere could certainly see the light of day in the long-term, but I think the next two years for Facebook are all about superpowering the Quest lineup.