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VR gets untethered…

Oculus Quest is out. It is the first mass market VR equipment that is really completely untethered. Image credit: Oculus

Quite a bit of excitement for the availability on the market of Oculus Quest (and Oculus Rift S but it is the former that is stealing the thunder). It comes to market on May 21st, 2019. A few of them have been made available to several VR aficionados and you can find plenty of reviews on the web (like: ArsTechnica, TheVerge, …) so I am not going to repeat here what you can easily find on the web.

The crucial feature of Oculus Quest that is setting it apart from the others is to be untethered, it does not come with a “tail” of wires that you have to plug in into a computer for power and data. You can move around, use it in the living room and keep it on in the bathroom (why you would want to do that is a different question…). Of course, to me wearing something that is completely blocking my visibility of the ambient is not exactly conducive to move around a lot but I can understand the excitement of VR fans that so far were limited in the kind of movements they could make because of the presence of wires and the concern to trip on them.

The Oculus Quest has all it take embedded, the power supply -battery- the computer, the positioning sensors and ambient sensors. It is a little but heavier than those relying on a wired connection, as it might be expected, but you can take it along with you on a trip with no need of lugging all the things that would be required to make other VR goggles working.

The reviews I read are all agreeing it is a very nice step forward that can give further impulse to VR but they are also all agreeing that it is not -yet- what would really be needed to bring VR to the masses. It is just making happier the people that are already VR fans, it is unlikely to win many others. The resolution is good but nowhere near to make you feel what you see is “real”, it still looks artificial. Moving around, like walking on a sidewalk following a trail is clearly not a good idea, since you won’t be able to see the real world around so the moving around that is enabling is anyway strongly constrained by this.

What I find really interesting is that it shows the progress of technology and this points to the possibility of having immersive wireless connectivity with the cyberspace. Here is where 5G starts to make sense. In the current scenario, with VR goggles that need to be wired to a computer one wonders why you wouldn’t you fibre connectivity through the computer and would turn to a wireless connectivity! True, you may say that if you are in your living room with this untethered goggle you may still use your WiFi, and then fibre – no need for 5G. However, now that you can have this untethered goggle you can use it anywhere and you will not have fibre connectivity everywhere. That is where 5G can become handy (of course for the coming 2-3 years you are unlikely to have 5G in that remote camping place …).

Something that I would also like is to see this Oculus Quest (or similarly performing goggles) to be used as an interface. I can imagine myself having them on my desk and donning them once in a while to get an immersive feeling of something I can be looking on the internet, like a hotel I am considering to book. I see it being offered on my computer screen and rather than using a mouse to explore the 360 surrounding I could don the goggle (without having to bother with their connectivity) and just start to look around. I would surely be pleased to use them as I spend some time on my flight simulator to become immersed in the cockpit, and seeing my hand accessing all the toggles, wheels and thrust levers in it, without having to spend a fortune to re-create a physical mock up of a cockpit (and of course even if you are willing to invest the 4-5 thousand $ it takes to recreate a decent cockpit you would not be able to recreate the hundreds types of cockpits that you can use in a flight simulator).

Unfortunately we are not there yet. As I mention they are not providing a believing immersive sensation of reality. Let’s give technology a few more years (my bet is 10 years will be required) and that may become possible.

The price is ok, between 300 and 500$, depending on where you are buying them (with Europeans enjoying as usual a higher price!). If we can get goggles that are really delivering VR and make us feel it is the real thing at that price I bet we will see the uptake in the mass market and that might change the way we interface with computers and the way content will be designed and delivered.

In the next decade I am convinced that VR will remain confined to a few niches, both in industry and in the mass market, whilst I can see a gradual uptake of AR in the mass market.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.