“Oculus Go” hardware review: the VR equivalent of dial-up

I have to start this review by saying that I’m a first-time user of VR. I have been living in Paraguay, a developing country by any means of measure, since 2015. That means that, while my Canadian buddies have had access to the spare cash needed to run something like the Oculus Rift or PSVR out of curiosity or seeking amusement, I’ve been left by the sidelines. Couple to that the fact that I have recently, at age 32, purchased my first-ever television set, and you’ll see that I’m much more attracted to portable entertainment than an in-situ megarig. That’s why, when Oculus and Facebook (and Xiaomi, of all companies) announced the Oculus Go, I was immediately interested: not only was it a 100% portable (and self contained, unlike the GearVR that preceeded it) solution, it started at US$200! I have been using mine for a couple of weeks now, and below, you’ll find my thoughts on this wondrous little machine: what I consider to be the VR equivalent of dial-up.

To those fortunate enough to have lived through the late 90s and early 2000s, it may seem that I’m having a diss at the Go: we remember dial-up as a cumbersome, loud, inconvenient and slow means of accessing the internet. Surely, that ancient predecessor to ADSL, cable and fiber optics-driven magnificence we enjoy today is something to shy away from, something you don’t want to be associated with in any way?

On the contrary: dial-up access to the internet brought us the internet revolution as we know it. Yes, it was cumbersome, slow and inconvenient. But it was also very affordable, and it offered access to what seemed like an endless supply of information, games, media, knowledge and growth. It took a while, sure, and we didn’t have Google back then (hands up those who remember Altavista!), but it did seem like nothing was out of reach if you had the patience to wait for the sites to load. It democratized access to the internet. My aunt had internet. She barely knew how to use a phone. In 1999, a friend and I helped his dad run a cyber cafe (do you remember those?), and people came to be amazed at the relative ease with which we could know when Christopher Colombus was born, or the fact that you didn’t have to buy a CD to listen to the latest Korn track (it was the late 90’s after all). Dial-up, despite its flaws and limitations, changed the world and speeded up the technological revolution to an inmensurable degree.

It also pissed off Lars Ulrich a great deal.

And so, we arrive at the Oculus Go.

Based on a Snapdragon smartphone chip, and sporting a rather clever LCD screen and an industrial, minimalist design, the Oculus Go does something that no other VR setup can do: it brings VR to the people. The Rift is too expensive and needs a separate (and powerful) computer to run. PSVR is better, and has a great library of games, but it’s not really multipurpose. And it’s still expensive. And you still need to be hooked up with a million cables. GearVR is almost there, but is let down by the fact that you need an expensive smartphone to run it. And even then, due to device fragmentation, the quality of experiences there vary. The Mirage Solo by Lenovo and Google, while it offers 6 degrees of freedom on the headset in hardware, is limited by a lackluster software library that’s somewhat stagnated.

Nothing of the sort occurs with the Go: everything is polished. The headset, while affordable at US$200 for the 32GB model, feels extremely well made, if not quite premium. The experience is self-contained and streamlined. Just the headset and the controller, and you’re off to the races. You can read more details about the tech specs in other reviews, but it boils down to: 3 degrees of freedom thanks to a Snapdragon 821 processor, 2560 x 1440 WQHD fast-switch LCD display, an Android-derived Oculus operating system, built-in 3D speakers (that work surprisingly well), a battery that’ll last you around 2-2.5 hours, and of course, the controller, which is also 3DOF capable. It’s good enough of a setup that I didn’t ever feel like “it wasn’t VR”, and even though I have Meniere’s disease, a condition that basically means I’m constantly motion-sick, the headset didn’t make me motion sick at all (except when doing rollercoasters and stuff). It’s light and comfortable, even with glasses, though I’ve found that it can steam up in the glass if its too cold in the room.

It does, however, have its limitations and quirks (much like dial-up did).

The library, while impressive in its sheer number of titles available (Oculus boasts of over 1,000 games and experiences at launch), lacks variety: there are quite a few flying experiences, on-rail shooters, scare-jump horror titles, and some excellent strategy and puzzle games (some of which were already working on reviewing). There is a distinct feel, though, that a lot of developers haven’t really explored the limits of what’s possible with 3 degrees of freedom or VR itself when it comes to games. They’re relying too much on the technology, on the whole, rather than using is simply as as a mechanic, as a tool for delivering a bigger, fuller experience.

Check out the trailer for “Darknet” by E McNeil, a GearVR classic that I’m really enjoying on the Go:

Speaking of experience, that’s one term you’ll hear about often in conjunction with VR, and the Go has plenty of experiences right off the bat: Netflix has a gorgeous app, Discovery VR has some super cool stuff available, and Venues offers you the possibility of attending events through 360-degree cameras. It’s really quite cool! But the technology is not quite there yet: on the one hand, camera technology is not all that polished when it comes to recording and streaming 360-degree and/or 3D content. Adapted sensors and not the greatest glass means we’re in the infancy of videomaking for VR. And it shows: a lot of videos and experiences feel exactly the way original YouTube content (to cite but one example), or even DSLR filmmaking, felt 5 to 10 years ago: with a lot of potential, but lacking polish.

Another sour spot for me is the way Oculus is approaching purchase, initial setup and distribution. Living in Paraguay, for example, I had to ask a friend in the US to buy the headset for me and ship it to me via a forwarding address. Neither Oculos nor Best Buy ship to forwarding addresses from the US. Europe is seeing a similar issue with a later launch date and limited availability. Thankfully, I can still use my Canadian PayPal account to pay for titles (unlike the Nintendo Switch eShop, for example, where the PayPal account must be from the same country as the eShop you’re trying to access). So, instead of paying US$200 for the 32GB headset, I’m almost $300 into it, counting international shipping, while still within my purchase capabilities (just), I see no reason for this limitation. I wish they’d ship anywhere, as long as you’ve got the money to pay for it.

Initial setup in a developing country is also touch-and-go: I had recently moved into my new place and I didn’t have an internet connection yet. The headset wouldn’t even pair via Bluetooth to my phone without internet. And when I activated my mobile data plan for the initial setup, I discovered that the headset wouldn’t boot without being connected to a Wi-Fi network.

Once I my internet issue sorted, the headset updated, and I was into VR. For the first time in my life. And it has really changed the way I see the technology: I went from considering it a novelty item, to seeing it as a tool with almost limitless potential. I have already started taking courses on software development for VR. It’s exciting to think of the new ways you can reach audiences with VR, and the kind of stories you can tell. The things you can show, and how. I also could see a great, affordable way to enjoy new, exciting content, and even chill and Netflix in a new way. It really does shine at that.

So, no, Oculus Go is not perfect. But, much like dial-up in the 1990’s, Oculus Go is that step that will enable a massive user-base growth for VR. It’ll get more developers interested. The pricepoint will allow people like myself to give VR a chance. Sure, it’s not quite the Oasis we read about in Ready Player One: some experiences need ironing out, and developers need to push the boundaries of the technology.

But my 32kbps dial up connection didn’t allow me to stream movies in real time; it still, however, managed to change my life forever.

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