#1: I love you, you magical device that transports me from my dirty basement to a floating pedestal on Machu Picchu.
#2: I hate you, you uncomfortable, finicky, battery-sucking face computer!
Ah yes, face computers—aka VR headsets. If the crystal-ball predictions pan out, we’ll soon all be wearing themto transform into digital avatars and work, play, shop and more in the so-called metaverse.
But right now? An hour or so in the headset and you’re feeling meta-worse.
I’m specifically talking about the $299 Meta Quest 2—formerly known as the Oculus Quest 2—because it’s the most popular headset on the market. Meta hasn’t announced sales figures but did report $1 billion in spending in the Quest content store. The NPD Group, a research firm, said that sales of VR and augmented-reality hardware more than doubled during the 2021 holiday season, versus the prior year.
“My expectation is that Meta is probably 85% or more of the market,” said NPD analyst Ben Arnold. HTC, Sony and others sell more expensive headsets that require additional equipment and appeal to more hard-core gamers.
Despite more people buying Quests, Facebook parent Meta reported its VR unit lost $3.3 billion in the fourth quarter of 2021. Oof. Yet not a shocker for those of us who have been using the Quest 2 regularly and know how far it is from the sleek eyewear of our mixed-reality future.
The Quest 2 is hampered by various issues, including subpar battery, finicky navigation and not-so-obvious safety features. Fortunately, there are things we can do to address them. Plus, each issue tells us something about future products—not only from Meta but also Apple and Microsoft, which have both acknowledged interest in this area.
Uncomfortable on the Face
Sure, when you first put on the Quest 2 all seems fine, but fast forward and it’s like you’ve been wearing a beer helmet loaded with bricks instead of beer. If you’re using the included elastic strap, that is.
Short-term solution: Upgrade to Meta’s $49 Elite Strap, which balances the headset’s weight better and is easier to adjust.
You can also buy a more comfy “face interface”—the horrible name for the insert that surrounds your eyes and nose. I like this soft $36 option from Kiwi Design. Meta also sells these leather-like replacements.
Long-term solution: Meta’s high-end headset, dubbed Project Cambria, is due later this year, and will have more sensors and something called “pancake optics.” Nope, no virtual trip to IHOP but yes, the device will likely have a thinner profile.
Sony just announced its PlayStation VR2 headset, which will also be slightly slimmer than its predecessor, with improved comfort. But you’ll still look like a marionette, wired to the PlayStation 5.
Short Battery Life
With the Quest 2, you form an always-be-charging habit. I find I need to recharge every two hours or so.
Short-term solution: There’s a $109 version of the Elite Strap with a built-in battery. It’s surprisingly comfortable, and provides two extra hours of use. If you don’t want to spend that much, you could BYOB (bring your own battery pack) and use Kiwi Design’s $35 Power Bank Fixing Strap.
The AA-battery-powered controllers last much longer but those batteries are a pain. A good solution? The $99 Anker Charging Dock, which powers the headset and includes rechargeable batteries and special battery covers so you can just drop the controllers in the dock to charge.
Long-term solution: This is a tough one. “The better the graphics, the more processing power you’re going to need and the more that’s going to drain the battery,” said Cathy Hackl, the chief metaverse officer at Futures Intelligence Group, who has worked on hardware at HTC, Magic Leap and others. Perhaps Meta’s next headset will also have more batteries.
Those controllers are fine for gaming, but I find myself fumbling around when I want to do simple tasks.
Short-term solution: Enable voice control. While in your headset, go to Settings > System > Voice Commands. Enable In-App Voice Commands and then the Controller Shortcut. Now you can double-press on the right controller’s Oculus button and shout your command. You can do everything from launch apps to ask the time. Here’s a list of other supported commands.
You can also get the headset to listen for your wake word. Go to Settings > Experimental Features and enable “Hey Facebook.” (Odd since, you know, the company isn’t called Facebook anymore.) Like Alexa-powered speakers, the device only captures audio once it hears the wake word, Meta said. You can delete or turn off storage of audio transcripts in settings.
A cooler trick? Turning your hands into controllers. Go to Settings > Device > Hands and Controllers. Toggle on Hand Tracking. Point and move your hands to what you want to select, then pinch. To scroll, you pinch, then drag. It’s cool but can also be quite janky.
Long-term solution: Meta’s next headset will come with redesigned controllers. It will also have more sensors for improved hand tracking. Further out, Meta is exploring a wrist wearable to detect precise finger and hand movements.
Walled Off From the World
When you’re in the virtual world, you really feel like you’re in the virtual world. In my video, you can see how the Quest 2’s immersion is so full, you don’t realize when you’re about to jump into a TV or couch.
Short-term solution: Meta makes you set up a boundary (aka Guardian) when you first use the headset, and requires you to reconfirm it every time you put on the headset. The headset then warns you, with a virtual fence, when you’re about to cross the border.
A more helpful feature is a more hidden one: Passthrough gives you a grainy black-and-white camera view of your real surroundings, without you taking off your headset. Go to Settings > Guardian. Toggle on Double Tap for Passthrough. Now, before you jump, double-tap the side of the headset to confirm you’re not about to collide with the coffee table or the dog.
Long-term solution: The next headset from Meta will have full-color Passthrough and more of a mixed-reality component. (Reminder: VR transports you away from your living room. AR overlays objects inside it. Mixed reality is somewhere in the middle.)
Meta’s more ambitious goal is smaller and lighter headsets—even regular-looking AR glasses that project 3-D digital information on top of the real world.
“It’s going to be one of the hardest technical challenges of the decade,” Mark Zuckerberg said on an earnings call last April. “It’s basically fitting a supercomputer in the frame of glasses.” The company’s Project Nazare AR glasses are still a few years out.
Apple’s also working on some sort of headset, according to analysts and other industry insiders. (When I asked an Apple executive about its mixed-reality headset plans, he said jokingly, “I don’t know anything about what you’re talking about.”)
That’s what is really coming: a battle between the tech giants to create not only the best face computer but also software and apps to entice us to buy them—and keep them on our heads, ideally without also strapping car batteries to our necks.
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