Oculus Quest Steps Toward Next-Gen VR with Last-Gen Technology

The Oculus Quest standalone headset isn't the highly anticipated successor to the popular Oculus Rift. But it does use last generation's chip technology to deliver a step toward next-generation virtual reality.
The Oculus Quest standalone headset is Oculus and Facebook's biggest push toward mainstreaming virtual reality. (Image source: Oculus / Facebook)  

With the next generation of VR headsets already coming into the marketplace, many have been wondering when Oculus—the company that arguably kicked off the resurgence of VR—was going to unveil the next generation of its popular Rift headset.

Only five months after releasing the standalone Oculus Go (a headset targeted at casual users), many were anticipating the announcement of a Rift 2.0 at the company's annual developer conference, Oculus Connect. What they got instead was both less and more exciting, depending on where you fall on your level of VR enthusiasm and anticipation.

The new headset, the Oculus Quest, is not the next-generation Rift. It's more of an upgraded version of the Oculus Go, adding new features and capabilities aimed primarily at gaming applications. Some will be disappointed that the Quest is not the high-end consumer and enterprise product they've been waiting for—something to compete with the likes of the HTC Vive Pro. Others will be excited for this headset that sits somewhere in between the high end and the very casual. If you're a video gamer seeking a fully immersive VR experience beyond what the Go can offer, but can't or won't invest thousands of dollars into a high-end, VR-ready PC to run the Rift, the Quest should present a very attractive option.

Speaking during the opening keynote at Oculus Connect, Hugo Barra, VP of VR at Facebook (Oculus' parent company), acknowledged that the Quest isn't a replacement for the Rift. But he called it a step in that direction. For those wondering, yes, the Quest is the secretive Project Santa Cruz that Oculus teased months ago that many speculated would actually be a replacement for the Oculus....alas...

Still, the Quest does offer all of the features that users have come to expect from next-generation VR. The standalone headset requires no PC or cell phone tether and is completely wireless. It features six degrees of freedom (6DoF) inside-out tracking, meaning it can track a wearer's position in space and translate that into movement in the virtual world without the aid of external sensors. It also provides markerless inside-out tracking, meaning the sensors do not require special markers or symbols to be placed around a room for tracking.

The headset's tracking system technology, which the company calls Oculus Insight, uses four ultra-wide-angle sensors to detect edges, corners, and distinct features in environments—allowing the Quest to detect floors, ceilings, walls, and even furniture and fixtures like wall art, curtains, and windows. The sensors build a point cloud-like map of a space. A proprietary computer vision algorithm then combines this data with gyroscope and accelerometer data to estimate a user's head position as fast as once every millisecond, according to Oculus.

This same system tracks the two wireless controllers (one for each hand) packaged with the headset. It also lies behind a new safety feature that Oculus calls the Guardian System. Essentially, the Quest is able to remember different spaces and store information about them, allowing users to take the Quest to multiple locations and have the headset immediately work within that setup (presumably, so long as the room remains the same as last time).

Barra added that Oculus Insight is advanced enough to work even in large spaces that are “beyond room scale.” There's no formal definition for room scale but HTC, the maker of the Vive, has defined room scale as 2 x 1.5 meters or 5 meters wide.

Oculus was expectedly mum about any deep technical details of the Quest. The headset has a display resolution of 1600x1440 per eye—the same as the Oculus Go, but with the addition of lens space adjustment to optimize the lens angle for individual users.

Given the Quest's $399 price point, one can surmise that the hardware is not radically more advanced than other headsets on the market. While Oculus hasn't identified what type or types of cameras make up the array for inside-out tracking, it is likely a camera system similar to the Google Worldsense tracking cameras used in the Lenovo Mirage Solo. The HTC Vive Pro has low resolution (640 x 480) VGA cameras that perform a similar function.

Various other sensors, such as infrared, ultrasound, or even LiDAR, could provide the external tracking. But it's highly unlikely Oculus is using these in the Quest, given its price. The enterprise-focused XTAL headset from VRgineers, for example, uses the ultrasound Leap Motion sensor for hand movement tracking. But for this reason and several others, that headset comes in at $5,800. Perhaps Oculus is saving more high end solutions for that long-awaited Rift 2.0 that may come someday.

Based on previous information, one can guess there's a Qualcomm Snapdragon chip under the hood of the Oculus Quest. When Qualcomm announced the Snapdragon 845, a chip optimized for mobile VR devices, it announced Oculus as one of its OEM partners. In a news announcement from Qualcomm, Ash Jhaveri, vice president of business development for Oculus and Facebook, was quoted as saying, “The Snapdragon Mobile VR Platform lends itself to the highest possible level of performance to meet the high computing demands of the standalone VR product category...Qualcomm’s technology, coupled with Oculus’ expertise, opens up lots of possibilities to bring people the best standalone VR.”

Unfortunately, according to multiple sources and social media from Oculus Connect, the Quest is running on a Snapdragon 835, the same chip found in Google's Daydream headset and the Lenovo Mirage Solo. While this is an upgrade from the Snapdragon 821 that the Oculus Go uses, it still represents last year's model as far as high-end VR is concerned. Perhaps this was a decision made to keep the Quest at a competitive price point. The 835 does, however, feature a built-in visual-inertial odometry (VIO) algorithm for tracking users in relation to external objects. That algorithm sounds like it could at least be functioning as, or in complement to, the Oculus Insight technology.

Rather than the next-gen Snapdragon 845, the Quest uses the Snapdragon 835 (shown), a less powerful option used in other standalone headsets already on the market. (Image source: Qualcomm)

The Snapdragon 845 also features more bells and whistles than have been discussed for the Quest. In addition to VIO, the 845 chip integrates simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM) technology. And if SLAM is good enough to help autonomous cars navigate roads, it could certainly help deliver “beyond room scale” VR experiences. What the Snapdragon 845 does enable that was not discussed with the Oculus Quest is foveated rendering and eye tracking. Combining these two would allow images to be rendered at the center of the eye (mimicking what humans see in the real world). It would also enable the headset to track eye movements for use as a control scheme or other purposes.

Perhaps Oculus is playing its cards close and could surprise users with an 845 in the final release. A move like that would certainly excite the gamers and more hardcore enthusiasts that the Quest is targeting. What's more likely is Oculus is saving the 845 for its true successor to the Rift—something enterprise users and those waiting for the next high-level VR experience will still be eagerly awaiting.

Oculus is expecting to launch the Oculus Quest sometime in the Spring of 2019.

Chris Wiltz is a Senior Editor at  Design News covering emerging technologies including AI, VR/AR, and robotics.

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