Tuesday, May 21, 2024
VR&AR

Taking standalone VR to the next level


The Oculus Quest and Quest 2 changed the game for VR, taking the medium from the prohibitively expensive and cumbersome realm of tethered PC headsets, and propelling it into the mainstream.


When the Meta Quest 2 launched, amidst the pandemic, the timing was perfect. Everyone was looking for an escape, and what better way than investing in a VR headset for the first time? Now, millions of people have already experienced the joys of VR gaming, and Meta is looking to replicate its success in a new frontier – mixed reality, or MR.

It’s not just MR that Meta Quest 3 brings to the table, though. It’s a serious upgrade on all fronts. There’s a new processor, new optics, new displays, new controllers, new sensors – pretty much everything is new. I’ve been playing with it for the past week or so, and here are my thoughts.

Meta Quest 3-1

Meta

Meta Quest 3

Editor’s Choice

More than just a healthy hardware upgrade, the Quest 3 has the potential to bring a world of exciting MR gameplay to a wide audience. If you’re looking to get into AR, VR or MR, the Quest 3 is hands down the best standalone option in 2023.

Pros

  • Upgraded processor and better graphics
  • Awesome MR experiences
  • Impressive optics and displays
  • Much better speakers
  • Slimmed down headset and controllers
Cons

  • Pass-through quality suffers in low-light
  • Default headstrap is a little basic

Price and availability

The Meta Quest 3 is available to buy now from Meta directly, or from popular retailers like Amazon and Best Buy.

The base model costs $499.99/£479.99 and comes with 128GB of built-in storage. There’s also a 512GB model that retails for $649.99/£619.99.

Design

There’s no mistaking the Quest 3 for its predecessor, it’s a fresh design throughout. There are some elements that remain familiar, like the white colourway and the fabric strap, but the changes are plain to see.

Meta Quest 3 (4)

The most immediately noticeable change is the addition of prominent pill-shaped sensors on the front of the headset. The left and right units include colour pass-through cameras for mixed reality experiences, and the middle pill has a depth sensor. This is the first indication of the new direction that Quest 3 is heading in, bringing MR to the forefront, literally and figuratively – but I’ll explore that more later on.

The headset is noticeably slimmer, around 40 per cent slimmer according to Meta, this means that it feels much more balanced and comfortable in use. I wouldn’t say it’s quite as comfortable as the Pico 4, which locates its battery on the rear of the head strap for better weight distribution, but it’s certainly an improvement over the last generation. The centre of mass is much closer to your face, so the headset is less prone to wobbles when making quick movements.

Meta Quest 3 (18)

Also assisting in this comfort is the redesigned Y-shaped head strap, which wraps around the back of your head to keep the Quest 3 firmly secured. It’s a notable improvement over the previous T-shaped strap, but after the release of the Pico 4, which comes with an Elite-style strap as standard, I was hoping Meta would be pushed into making it the default option.

Still, the standard option gets the job done well enough, and it has the added benefit of allowing the headset to pack down extremely small for transport. I was seriously surprised at how small the retail packing for the Quest 3 is, and that’s mostly thanks to the use of a fabric strap, along with the new touch controllers.

Meta Quest 3 (15)

These controllers no longer have tracking rings protruding from the top, which gives them a very streamlined and slimmed-down look. In use, it means you’re much less likely to accidentally bang the controllers together, which is something I found myself doing a lot when testing the Pimax Crystal recently. Elsewhere, the controllers have an almost identical layout to the Quest 2 controllers, so anyone who’s used the predecessor should feel immediately at home here.

A massive upgrade on this headset is the inclusion of a proper IPD adjustment wheel, so you can dial in your settings with millimetre precision, rather than relying on a few pre-set options. There’s also a depth adjuster built in this time, so if you need to wear glasses, you can do so without adding spacers to the facial interface. You simply press a button and slide out the padding until there’s an appropriate amount of space – top stuff.

Meta Quest 3 (10)

You may have noticed that there are some interesting colour accents on some of the headsets in my hands-on photos. This is because Meta is selling straps and facial interfaces in Elemental Blue and Blood Orange as optional accessories for $49.99 / £49.99. It could be handy if you have a household with multiple headsets and you want to differentiate between them, but personally, I prefer the monochrome look of the standard configuration.

Display, cameras and audio

The Meta Quest 3 has dual LCD displays which provide a 2064 x 2208 resolution per eye. This equates to roughly a 30 per cent resolution increase over its predecessor and is the highest resolution that a Meta headset has offered to date. It also uses the same (or very similar) pancake lenses as Quest Pro, a massive upgrade over the fresnel lenses in the Quest 2.

Meta Quest 3 (7)

According to Meta, this new optical arrangement gets you around a 15 per cent wider field of view, with a sharpness increase of 25 per cent, and also dramatically reduces the amount of flaring and God rays. In my experience, this seems to be accurate. The Quest 3 is much sharper than its predecessor and I found the optics and FOV to be quite similar to the Pico 4, which is the headset I’ve been using the most over the last year.

The near-field speakers in the headband have been reworked too. They should now be 40 per cent louder as well as provide an increased bass response, and I would argue that they do. They’re a notable improvement over the last-gen, at the very least, and can get impressively loud if you want them to. There’s excellent spatial positioning, too, and the effect sounds more pronounced than it did with Quest 2. Of course, those who are concerned about audio fidelity will still probably want you use their own headphones, and thankfully Meta has retained the 3.5mm headphone jack on this model for that very situation.

As I mentioned earlier, a lot of work has been put into the pass-through cameras, with the goal of making this a true mixed-reality headset. The Quest 3 boasts ten times the pass-through quality of the Quest 2, which isn’t too surprising given that it was a super basic monochrome camera. But what’s more surprising is that it has three times more pixels than the pricey Quest Pro.

Meta Quest 3 (12)

My initial impression of the pass-through cameras was extremely positive, but this was in a carefully curated demo area with lots of bright natural light, which allowed the cameras to look their best. After testing at home, in my dimly lit living room, it quickly became apparent that these cameras struggle with low-light situations. When it’s darker, you’ll get lots of grain in the shadowy areas, which makes the overall image look a lot less impressive.

I use the pass-through camera on my Pico 4 frequently, and in some ways, the image is quite similar – and that headset certainly struggles with low light, too. The Quest 3, however, has a key advantage, as it uses two cameras. This means you get a stereoscopic 3D effect, and it feels much more natural to move around while wearing it. There’s also less distortion, but there are certain areas that suffer more than others. For example, if you hold your phone up to the headset, it will look super weird when positioned in between the two cameras.

There’s still plenty of room for the pass-through to improve, then, but it’s the best I’ve seen on a standalone headset yet, and that includes the Quest Pro. It may not be as seamless as the marketing suggests, but you’ll quickly forget about the image fidelity when MR elements are in play.

Performance and software

The Quest 3 is the first headset to feature Qualcomm’s XR2 Gen 2 chipset, so in effect, it’s the first standalone headset to offer performance that exceeds what the Quest 2 is capable of. It also boosts the RAM to 8GB, which should aid in performance and multitasking capabilities.

Meta Quest 3 (27)

Qualcomm says the XR2 Gen 2 delivers 2 and a half times better GPU performance as well as 50 per cent better GPU efficiency. It also has a dedicated visual analytics engine onboard and can provide video pass-through with just 12ms of latency. So, not only will future Quest titles look much better, but Meta says that existing titles will look better and run smoother, too.

One of the first things I experienced in the Quest 3 headset, and probably one of the first things customers will experience too, is the room setup process. It’s been completely overhauled to take advantage of the new MR capabilities and I was blown away by its ease.

Now, to set up your playspace, you simply move your head around to look at your room from all angles. AR geometric patterns cover the walls and furniture in the process, and when you’re done, you just click to end the setup. I’ve been manually drawing the outlines of our safe play space ever since the days of the original Vive and Oculus Rift, and this is the first major step forward in the time since – it’s brilliant.

One of the first games I played on the headset was Meta’s own First Encounters, which effectively serves as a demonstration of the Quest 3’s mixed-reality gaming capabilities. As it stands, it’s probably the most impressive MR title on the storefront, though I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot more from developers in the future.

First Encounters Quest 3

Meta

In this game, cute little alien creatures begin to break through your walls, and you use a gun to collect them and put them back in their spaceship. If you shoot at your walls, they will break away, revealing an alien landscape beyond your room, it’s a really impressive effect. The headset does a great job of accurately tracking your physical space, and it’s incredibly immersive.

It’s easy to see the potential that mixed reality has from this example, and there are plenty of other benefits that come along with it. Firstly, you can use more of your living space safely, as you can still see your surroundings. So you can safely step over a box, or shimmy around the couch, which are both things that I wouldn’t recommend attempting in VR. It’s also way nicer to use when you have friends over, as it doesn’t fully close you off from your surroundings. There’s no danger of accidentally punching your mate during an intense rhythm game, either.

I’m excited to see what comes in the future, but at present, it’s fair to say that there aren’t a lot of games utilising mixed reality. One of the only full titles I was able to use with MR was Samba Di Amigo, which comes out on October 12. But, it’s another great example, and it fills your room with AR elements like disco balls, dancing characters and trippy lighting effects.

Meta Quest 3 (16)

I also played a short demo of the upcoming Stranger Things game, due for release at the end of November, but it seems as if MR elements will serve as a bonus mini-game rather than being integral to the main story. Of course, I could be wrong, but that’s the vibe I got from my time with it.

The Quest 3 isn’t just about MR, though, and for most users, VR is still very much what will drive the decision to buy this headset. Meta’s biggest advantage here is the exceptional library of content you can access, everything that was available on the Quest 2 can be accessed on the Quest 3, too. This includes some of the most popular VR games around, like Beat Saber and Gorilla Tag.

Older titles feel like they run smoother on the Quest 3, but at present, I don’t feel like the graphics have been boosted to the degree that Meta has shown in some of its demos. From what I understand, the onus will be on the developers of these games to optimise them for the new Quest 3 hardware, and until they do, you’ll see the biggest difference with new releases.

Meta Quest 3 (26)

That said, the new pancake lenses and higher-resolution panels mean that everything looks better on the Quest 3 regardless of whether it has been optimised. The same is true if you use the headset with a gaming PC, too. The Quest 3 can connect in the exact same way as its predecessor, and it is a great option either tethered or using a high-speed wireless network.

So far, it seems like the Quest 3 offers about two to three hours of playtime per charge, about the same as the Quest 2. It’s not the most impressive battery life, but it’s long enough for most people’s needs. It can still be boosted by a suitably high-wattage USB-C power bank if you need extra juice, or you could opt for an accessory like Meta’s Elite Strap with Battery, which offers up to 2 hours extra playtime at a cost of $129.99.

Verdict

Simply put, if you want the best standalone VR experience available today, the Meta Quest 3 is the headset to get. It brings meaningful upgrades in just about every area: A slimmer and more comfortable design, better optics, better displays, improved audio, a more powerful processor and all-new MR capabilities.

It’s a significant price increase over its predecessor, but it’s well justified. And when you compare it to the rest of the VR market, it’s still an absolute bargain for what’s on offer.

There’s still room for improvement, of course, I’d love to see something like the Elite Strap coming as standard, the pass-through cameras could be better in low light, and longer battery life wouldn’t go amiss. But, as it stands, it’s by far the most well-rounded headset in this category, and on the software side, no one comes close to doing it as well as Meta.



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