No more wires! You don't need a phone! I still don't care!
This past week, the stand-alone VR headset era began with the launch of the Oculus Go and Lenovo Mirage Solo. Both gadgets fix two of the biggest problems with virtual reality — and they both offer unique advantages. But, despite our fairly positive reviews, neither headset addresses the primary reasons why these things tend to lose their novelty faster than you can say "early adopter."
Of the two, the cheaper $199 Oculus Go has the potential to reach the most shoppers. The design is lighter than Lenovo's headset and less bulky, and it offers access to more than 1,000 apps and games.
Oculus, part of Facebook, also deserves credit for trying to make virtual reality less of a solitary experience. If your friend or family member has the headset, they can join you in a virtual apartment of sorts, where you both can watch photos and movies and talk to each others' avatars. You can even walk up to a table and play a card game together. I tried it during a demo, and it was pretty neat to be interacting with someone in London, even though I was sitting in New York City.
These new headsets feel like a necessary evolution of virtual reality, not the leap forward the category needs for them to become must-have devices.
The Oculus Go also benefits from having built-in speakers, while the Lenovo Mirage Solo forces you to plug in earbuds. However, while the Oculus controller is pretty easy to use, you can't really move around in virtual reality land. Or dodge. Or duck. Only the pricier $399 Lenovo lets you do this with its six degrees of freedom via WorldSense's motion-tracking technology.
The Lenovo Mirage Solo also packs more power than the Oculus Go, thanks to the former's Snapdragon 835 processor, compared to the latter's aging Snapdragon 821 chip. And while the Solo doesn't offer as many social apps as the Go, you can beam your VR experience to the nearest TV with a Chromecast plugged in. That way, your friends and family can get a taste of your adventures.
Too bad the Google Daydream-powered Mirage Solo has only a quarter of the content of the Oculus Go (about 350 titles).
Cutting the cord from a geeky headset doesn't cut out the geek part.
Overall, these new headsets feel like a necessary evolution of virtual reality, not the leap forward the category needs for them to become must-have devices. For one, you wouldn't want to be seen in public using either the Go or Solo. Cutting the cord from a geeky headset doesn't cut out the geek part.
Second, virtual reality is still waiting for killer apps, or at least titles and franchises that are household names. Where is the Call of Duty in VR? Or Fortnite? Or Star Wars (no, an add-on to Battlefront on the PSVR doesn't count). To me, it feels like publishers and developers like EA and Epic are forever dragging their feet, waiting for true mass adoption before they commit more resources.
These stand-alone headsets have another issue, and that's the fact that no one under 13 is supposed to use them. This is the same health-related warning that comes with other headsets, because childrens' eyes are still developing. It's hard to indoctrinate the next wave of VR heads when they can’t participate.
Of course, virtual reality has uses other than entertainment and games, such as taking virtual tours and watching educational content. And Lenovo makes it pretty easy to create your own VR content with its Mirage Solo Camera. But it costs $299 for this accessory, and it captures only a 180-degree view, while you can pick up a great 360 camera like the Insta360 for the same price.
Where is the Call of Duty in VR? Or Fortnite? Or Star Wars?
Not all hope is lost when it comes to stand-alone VR headsets, however. The upcoming Oculus Santa Cruz promises better performance and more immersion via its six degrees of freedom and motion controllers. That will be pricier than the Go for sure, but the premium should be worth it, assuming the quality is that much better.
Still, as someone who has extensively played with the Gear VR, only to place it in a drawer, it's hard to envision a different fate for these new headsets.
Credit: Shaun Lucas/Tom's Guide