Meta’s newest VR headset is impressive. Here’s why you probably won’t buy it

Meta’s latest virtual reality headset, the Meta Quest Pro, is a sleek and powerful device. It can display text and fine details in VR, so even small print can be easily read. It can track your eyes and facial features, giving you a sense of connection with other people in virtual spaces: If you raise your eyebrows or they puff up their cheeks in real life, VR avatars will too. And they can be used as a mixed-reality headset that shows you a view of the world around you in color while allowing you to interact with digital objects — whether you’re painting on a dummy easel or building on an artificial miniature golf course.

The black headset that Meta revealed during an online event on Tuesday, but it probably isn’t in your price range. At $1,500 ($1,499.99 to be exact), it costs nearly four times as much as the company’s cheapest Quest 2 headset. Its price, performance, and potential are aimed more at businesses—think architects and designers—with pockets deep enough to splurge on a headset, and some creative and hardcore VR users.

Buyers can pre-order the Quest Pro starting Tuesday, and it will ship on October 25. It can be purchased online directly from Meta, and in the United States it can also be purchased at Best Buy stores through the Best Buy website and through Amazon.

Quest Pro’s capabilities mark an important milestone for Meta (and for CEO Mark Zuckerberg), which has spent years and billions of dollars aiming for a future where it believes people will spend more and more time in virtual spaces, mixing digital elements with the real world. The company’s VR unit, Reality Labs, is still small and expensive compared to its core business of selling ads on Facebook and Instagram: Meta said it lost $2.8 billion on Reality Labs during the second quarter of this year.

It’s also a major shift in strategy that shows the company is now offering its best VR technology to business customers in the hopes that they’ll be eager to use VR and mixed reality apps at work. It’s a plan that could be lucrative, though it risks alienating its consumer VR business (the company plans to have two Quest product lines from now on, using the higher-end one to decide which features to add to the cheaper ones. one).

The shift may unnerve companies like Microsoft and Magic Leap, which have spent years trying to convince business users that their more expensive mixed-reality headsets are the future of work. (Microsoft, maker of the HoloLens mixed-reality headset, is apparently hedging its bets by bringing its software to the Quest Pro and Quest 2, in a partnership announced Tuesday at Meta’s Connect event that focuses on its latest advancements in virtual reality and related technology.)

And it’s unclear whether — or how — this powerful device will help Meta popularize the so-called metaverse, which Zuckerberg believes so strongly that he renamed Facebook Meta in 2021. Meta is the market leader in VR headsets with its consumers. Geared Quest 2 headset, but that market is still small compared to, say, console gaming.

Last week I spent a few hours using the Quest Pro at the Meta office near San Francisco and came away both impressed and confused. It quickly became clear that this was not a headset for the masses – a decision that will frustrate some Quest 2 owners waiting to upgrade to a two-year-old headset. Still, it offers a glimpse of what VR and mixed reality experiences might be like in the coming years: better looking, more fun, and increasingly intuitive.

Eye and face tracking

The Quest Pro looks significantly different from the Quest 2, as Meta has taken the battery out of the main body of the headset, curved it and moved it behind the wearer’s head. That, plus a dial on the back of the headband that lets you adjust it precisely (it’s much easier for those of us who wear glasses to keep them in VR), gives a HoloLens 2-like layout. The dial also makes it easy to turn the headset on and off, especially if you have long hair.

Unfortunately, this new layout may mean that it is less comfortable for some people to wear, especially for longer periods of time. With the added weight behind my head and only a knob to adjust the single strap around my noggin, I still had to adjust it slightly. I wore several of the same headsets over the course of about two hours; after six different demos, from virtual painting to DJing, I left with a headache.

One of the most notable new features on the Quest Pro is its ability to track the wearer’s eyes and face—something that can make people feel more present when interacting with other avatars in virtual spaces. To do this, the headset uses five infrared sensors to pick up details like where you’re looking and whether you’re smirking, smiling, frowning or raising an eyebrow. This tracking is turned off by default; Meta also said that it processes eye and face images on the headset and then deletes them, and that this will also be the case for developers who add this tracking to their apps.

I tested this new tracking while playing with a demo of a green-faced alien character named Aura that Meta is making available to developers to try out how it works. With the Quest Pro on my head, I could smile, scoff, wink, squint, scrunch up my nose, and so on, while the Aura did the same, in real time (sadly, there’s no tongue tracking). The responsiveness and specificity of Aura’s facial mimicry was impressive, even at this early stage.

This kind of tracking appears to be a step toward what Zuckerberg promised would come after he was widely criticized online in August for a Facebook post featuring a picture of his boxy, cartoon-like avatar on Meta’s flagship social app, Horizon Worlds. After its release, Quest Pro users will be able to use it in that app and Horizon Workrooms, Meta said, as well as several developer apps like Painting VR and DJ app Tribe XR.

Updated manual drivers

The headset is also more of a mixed reality headset than a VR headset because it’s not designed to block out all ambient light all the time. This is a big departure from Meta’s previous focus on immersive VR, where your physical surroundings were usually more of a hindrance than an asset. The Meta includes magnetic light-blocking panels that can slide out on the sides to cut out more light, and starting in late November, it will also sell a $50 accessory designed to fully block ambient light.

The inclusion of ambient light is part of the company’s effort to make headset wearers feel in touch with their physical surroundings. To build on that, the Quest Pro uses outward-facing cameras on the headset to let you see your surroundings in color (rather than black and white, like on the Quest 2), and continues Meta’s recent efforts to make apps interact with real-world world.

This was seen during a demo in which I painted with Painting VR on a virtual canvas, moving around a real space with a virtual brush and tool stand on one side of the canvas and a shelf of paint cans on the other. I could mix colors, grab brushes, and hang my finished (and admittedly terrible) painting on the actual wall behind me, all while watching what was going on around me and getting advice from the app’s creator.

The hand controllers that accompany the Quest Pro will also play an important role in both VR and mixed reality applications, and have been significantly improved over the ones that come with the Quest 2. Now you don’t have to rely on the headset to help you determine where in space is where the controllers are located, each controller contains three load carrying sensors. This means they can track 360 degrees of movement, which should provide smoother and better tracking of hands and arms in all kinds of applications. (Unfortunately, they won’t track your feet in VR, but Zuckerberg announced on Tuesday that Meta will use AI to bring full-body avatars to Horizon Worlds at some point in the future.)

The pressure sensor on each controller allows for more precise movements than the current Quest 2 controllers. I tested this with a demo where I was able to pick up and throw around various small objects such as a cup, dice, and a garden gnome. I find that if I lift the cup gently, especially by the handle, I don’t hurt it; however, if I caught it, I crushed it (I mostly crushed it).

The things the Quest Pro and these controllers can do without hooking up to a powerful computer or setting up a bunch of external sensors seemed impossibly far when then-Facebook bought VR headset maker Oculus in 2014. At the time, most people considered VR a mass market technology; eight years and billions of dollars later, we know and expect more. The headset may come with the technology, but it will be up to Meta customers to decide if it’s worth the price.

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