LAS VEGAS - Computers may one day be replaced by virtual reality (VR) headsets that engulf users in a digital environment like a workplace or another city, all from the comfort of their home.
Through the visor, users can summon their work documents to appear as if from thin air, without the need for a desktop monitor. Users can attend meetings in their avatar form, which will reflect the user’s likeness and facial expressions in real time.
That is the future envisioned by Meta. But after spending 30 minutes with Meta Quest Pro – its latest VR headset that lets users into the metaverse – it seems the tech giant will need to do a lot more convincing and a lot more refining.
Meta invited The Straits Times to have a hands-on session with its latest VR headset on Jan 6 during the Consumer Electronics Show 2023 in Las Vegas. The demo was held at a meeting room at Wynn, a hotel on the Las Vegas strip, facilitated by two Meta staff.
Meta chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has made the metaverse one of the firm’s top priorities.
Meta is pouring more investments into the nascent technology even as it lost some US$10 billion (S$13.2 billion) in investments for its metaverse projects in 2022, amid a spate of retrenchments to keep Meta’s expenses in order.
So there is plenty riding on the success of any VR headset from Meta, as the gateway into the hotly anticipated metaverse. The Quest Pro follows the gaming-focused Meta Quest 2 (around $600) that was released in 2020 to decent reviews, but the Pro’s ambitions lie beyond entertainment as part of a quest to be the next-generation computer.
The Pro is aimed at professionals, intended for hosting business meetings and replacing in-person training, and allows designers to collaborate in a fully rendered VR space, all seamlessly through their visor.
At first glance, the Quest Pro appears fit for its ambitions. Its visor is sleek and well built, befitting its hefty US$1,500 price tag.
A faster processor and more storage space options also prime it to tackle the potentially intensive demands of professional use, such as complex presentations or design renderings.
The 722g device fit snugly around my head, with my glasses tucked comfortably behind the headset’s LCD lenses. The headset did not require a top strap that was part of its predecessor’s design, ensuring a user’s hair is not messed up after each session.
Strapped to my wrists were the Quest Pro’s ergonomic controllers, fitted with multiple cameras and processors you would find in a smartphone that help it to track full 360-degree movement with little lag. With joysticks and triggers at the back, its layout will be familiar to most who have used video-game controllers before.
The session kicked off with The World Beyond app, a mixed-reality game that blends the surrounding setting with a digital overlay of a colourful fantasy world. I was greeted by an animated creature that looks a little like Stitch, which prompted me to play catch with him with a virtual ball.
As with the Quest 2, the Pro mapped the room before overlaying it with the game world, setting the boundaries of where the virtual ball could bounce. The program made sure the physical coffee table next to me was not obstructed by the augmented reality (AR) overlay, so that I do not trip over it.
I was also able to adjust the safety perimeter so that the app will alert me if I cross the boundary. This prevents users from knocking into obstacles around them as the virtual and physical blend together.
But this is where the device gave me a slight headache after a few minutes of use, as the pass-through image of the real world is seen only through camera footage from the Pro’s front-facing lenses. As a result, the image is fuzzy and never clear enough to be comfortable.
Next, I opened another app that conjured up a mirror to showcase the Pro’s face-tracking technology – new to Meta’s headsets.
My reflection appeared as a green-skinned alien, with big expressive eyes and pink petals for hair. It tracked every inch of my face – down to the shifting of my eyes, thanks to the device’s eye trackers.
I pulled a range of faces that one would expect in a normal meeting – from a bored look to a big smile and a subtle smirk to a frown.
Most looks were reflected convincingly by my avatar in the mirror – except when I stuck out my tongue, which seemed to confuse the device, as my avatar simply hung its jaws open. A render to include next time, I presumed.
Despite some limitations, the Pro’s face-tracking technology represents a step forward in making virtual meetings more realistic, as participants can read the room to see how others are reacting in real time.
Load speeds on the Pro showed few flaws in the apps I tested and were especially impressive as I teleported around a virtual city at will in an app called Arkio, a collaborative platform for interior designers and city developers.
Yet, much is left to be desired when it comes to the Pro’s visual performance.
Despite better processors and specs, the images produced have a low frame rate and appeared choppy at times.
Character models are generally simplistic, closer to the visual quality seen in video games a decade ago and a far cry from what consumers are accustomed to today.
While it is unrealistic to expect console-quality performance from a portable device like the Quest Pro, its lacklustre visuals do not sell it well as a cutting-edge tool for professionals.
The controls are also unintuitive. For example, zooming in to objects in Arkio required me to spread both arms out as if swimming, when it would seem more natural to zoom in with the push of a button or some kind of scroll. For now, it is easy to imagine users who are unfamiliar with video-game controllers losing patience with its controls.
Perhaps it is still early days for the metaverse, but as I ended my session, I never got the sense that I had just used a next-generation tool for serious professionals.
The technology still seems too glitchy to facilitate serious meetings confidently without disruption. Its graphics, too, have since been the subject of memes, rather than inspire productivity.
VR remains a compelling case for gamers, as the game-like controllers are well suited to traversing video-game environments.
And with more affordable headsets such as Meta’s own Quest 2, and others such as the HTC Vive XR Elite and the upcoming Sony PlayStation VR2, those keen to dabble in the metaverse may for now find these options more accessible and compelling.