The Stand-Alone Oculus Go Can Hold its Own, But it Won't Convince the Naysayers

By Tom Pritchard on at

In a world where virtual reality has a very high entry barrier, especially in terms of cost, there's a case to be made for a stand-alone headset that can be pulled out of a box and switched on with no faffing around. Or at least Oculus thinks so, and that's why it's released the Oculus Go. The headset is out today, and we got to play with one for ourselves. Here's what we thought.

WTF is the Oculus Go?

The Oculus Go is Oculus's first stand-alone headset. That means there's no need to buy anything else to use it, be it a particular phone or an expensive PC. The idea is that you can pull the headset out of the box and use virtual reality without having to pay more than the £199 price tag. While you still need a smartphone with the Oculus app to complete the setup process, the headset itself is capable of functioning independently with no outside influence. Despite the price Oculus built the Go to have a premium feel, rather than the cheap plasticy nature of some dirt-cheap mobile headsets.

Inside the box you get the headset, charging cable, controller (with a single AA battery and wrist strap), a cloth to keep the lenses clean, and a divider so glasses wearers can be sure they won't accidentally scratch the lenses while in use.

Setup

Setting up the Oculus Go is reasonably straightforward. You'll have to link it to the latest version of the Oculus App (available for Android and iOS), and that will walk you through everything - including the smaller details like how to put a battery into the controller. The most painful part of the experience was being forced to watch a short health and safety video, but that wasn't exactly a huge chore. It gave me enough time to peel off all the plastic from the Go's various components.

Once that's done, your headset is connected to your local Wi-Fi network and will download an update. Then you're reading to beam your eyes into the world of VR.

Design

At first glance, the Oculus Go's design isn't too dissimilar from other mobile-like headsets, like the Oculus-made Gear VR. The main difference, naturally, is that it's a stand-alone device and doesn't need you to strap a phone in to get going. That means everything is sealed up and you don't have to do any awkward fiddling around with components when you want to use it.

The Go also has two solid plastic 'arms' on each side, extending a bit further out that the facehole and connecting to the strap. You could easily dismiss that as a design quirk, but those arms each house a speaker grill that pumps audio relatively close to your ears. Oculus made it clear that the more complex audio components are stored in the front where there's room for everything, but the Go was deliberately designed to pump out audio close to your ears and offer a more immersive experience without headphones. While HTC's stand-alone Vive Focus does something similar, many mobile headsets used the phone's speakers which ended up being pretty rubbish.

The design point of note is the headstrap. Oculus has stuck with a fabric and velcro system, rather than adopting the mechanical headstrap used in the likes of the Vive Focus and PSVR, but has mixed things up a bit at the back of the head. While the Gear VR and others use a single elastic band around the back of the head, the Oculus Go splits it into two. That means there's one band that's completely horizontal and roughly level with the speaker arms that sits just above your ears, with the second sitting a couple of inches further up the back of your head. It's a small touch, but I found that it improved the stability of the headset compared to the likes of the Gear VR and made it a lot more comfortable to wear as a result.

Compared to the Gear VR, the lenses also happen to be a lot larger, the material surrounding the facehole also protrudes a lot more and is made of softer material to boot. It feels like it's completely made of memory foam, while the Gear VR's is small cloth cushion over what feels like soft plastic or rubber. Those things mean that not only can you see a lot more while you're wearing it, the Go is a lot more comfortable on your face. The only thing missing are the vents that help prevent the Gear VR from fogging up during use. Fortunately I didn't actually suffer from very much fogging. It happened from time to time, as it usually does when I use VR headsets, but as ever that's mostly down to the fact I apparently breathe upwards.

The front of the headset is fairly sleek and uniform, with only a couple of buttons and ports breaking things up. On the top you have buttons for power and changing volume, the base has a single microphone, and on the left hand side there's a charging port and 3.5mm headphone jack. Charging is done by microUSB for some reason, and as far as I can tell here's no support for wireless or USB-C headphones.

Controller 

Oculus didn't make a whole lot of changes to the controller, sticking with the same button layout as the Google Daydream and the Gear VR controller that came before it. That means there's a trigger, touchpad which doubles as a clickable button, a back button, and an 'Oculus' home button. The major change here is that the controller has a more ergonomic design, making it more akin to a game controller than a flat remote (looking at you HTC). While I can't say I've ever had issues with VR remotes in the past (the Gear VR's built-in touch controls are a different story), the Go controller fits very comfortably in my hands - which is big advantage if you're planning on strapping yourself in for long periods of time.

Another design quirk that I liked was the simple way of attaching the wrist strap. Rather than the fiddly way that involves basically sewing the strap through a tiny hole, the Go's wrist strap just slips into place and it held there by a plastic cover. It's easy to put in, and isn't going to fly out of your hand mid-use, like so:

Somewhat strangely, Oculus opted to have the controller powered by a single AA battery rather than a built-in rechargeable lithium-ion battery pack. It's not clear why, but seeing as how something similar happened with the Gear VR (which need two AAA batteries), I can only assume Oculus want people to be able to hotswap when they run out of juice and not have to deal with yet another cable.

There's nothing particular special about how the controller operates, using a similar system of motion sensors utilised by older headsets. Unlike the HTC Vive Focus, there are no cameras watching where your hands are going, so it doesn't matter where you're holding the controller while in use. The downside to this being that each time you pull the headset on, it asks you to point it forwards and hold down the Oculus button so it can sync properly. But that takes about three seconds, so it's not the end of the world.

Display & Audio

I have mixed feelings about the Oculus Go's display. According to Oculus it was designed with a fast switch LCD panel rather than the typical OLED panels on premium headsets and mobile phones, which is designed to help with motion blurring and offer richer colours. While the screen looked mostly fine, I did noticed that the setup ended up blurring the everything you aren't looking directly at. That means if you're not looking directly ahead, using your peripheral vision for instance, things aren't going to look quite very good.

But on the other hand, the display itself doesn't look all that great with obvious pixellation everywhere you look. But you have to remember that all VR headsets seem to have that issue, even the premium-tier headsets that cost a lot like the PSVR, Oculus Rift, and the original HTC Vive. That's to be expected, and while you can use the Go to view a screen far bigger than any TV any human being could afford, the quality isn't the same – especially on lower resolution content. But that problem is nothing new, and for a budget headset you can't expect Oculus to have made massive industry-changing improvements.

What I really didn't like was the colour blurring. If you have a screen and push your face in very close, especially if its an older CRT TV, you'll see the individual RGB colouring that makes up the display. The same is true on the Go, especially in darker portions of the screen, and it's always in the areas that you're not directly facing. So if you keep your head completely steady and move your eyes upwards you'll see areas that are blurry combinations of red, green, and blue. It is very distracting, especially if you're in the virtual cinema trying to watch a film and all you can see is a yellow bar running over the top of the virtual screen.

Audio-wise, I have zero complaints. Because of the way the speaker system is laid out, the audio comes in out of the headset's 'arms' and pretty damn close to your ears. Not quite on top (at least not for my large head), but close enough that you get to hear nice clear stereo audio without having to wear headphones. Better still if you're listening to it below 3/4 max, it isn't particularly easy for bystanders to hear what's going on. It obviously depends how close they are to you, and what the ambient noise is like, but for the most part it's a muted experience that shouldn't piss them off too much. If you do want to use headphones, there is a 3.5mm jack for your enjoyment.

As mentioned earlier there doesn't seem to be an option to connect Bluetooth headphones, even though the Go has Bluetooth to connect to the companion app. So make sure you have those cables spare.

Using It

If you've used VR, particularly mobile VR, then the Oculus Go should feel very familiar. It's not the same as what else is out there (including the Oculus-made Gear VR), but it's simple and intuitive. When your control options include a touchpad, trigger, and wherever you point your head, there isn't a whole lot of room to screw things up. The idea behind the Go is that it's an entry-level system, and it certainly feels that way - particularly since there aren't very many options to fiddle with and tweak the system in the settings.

While there isn't a whole lot to do with the base system, barring the stock apps and features, Oculus promises there are over 1,000 apps at launch thanks to the inherent compatibility Gear VR software. While there are apps that aren't cross platform (like Samsung video), the majority of them seem to be there. It helps that the two systems are fundamentally the same, with the only difference being that the Go doesn't need an expensive phone plugged in.

Nothing is going to stop you looking like a bit of a dick, though

Most importantly, the Go is something you can easily pull on and off at a moment's notice, though it does get annoying having to resync the controller every time you put it back on. The battery life lasts between two and two and a half hours of regular use, and while it would be nice if it lasted longer you have to remember that this is basically a giant screen packed into a pretty compact shell. It's enough to watch a film or get some gaming in though, which is probably what most people will actually do. Fortunately if you want to use it anything more than the battery can handle, the Go does still work when you plug it in to charge - you just need to be aware of the extra cable tethering you to the wall/battery pack.

The Go also isn't big on movement. Unlike a gaming headset, which might have you moving and waving your limbs around like a madman, the Go is mostly suited to stationary work. The games require you to move your hand around somewhat, how much depends on the game itself, but considering the limited tracking capabilities it's mostly about wrist movements rather than anything serious. All that means you don't need huge amounts of space to get things done, and there's nothing stopping you from plonking yourself down in a chair and doing your thing.

Anyone who suffers from motion sickness should be fine, but as usual the more intense apps will have more of an effect on people - depending on how sensitive their constitution is. Oculus is good at warning people, since the store includes an comfort level for each app. There's certainly no magical change that keeps the sickness from closing in, but with general use there shouldn't be too much of a problem - provided you don't swing your head round too fast.

Unfortunately my nickpicky side comes through here, and I find that the notifications linger far too long without any option (that I can see) to dismiss them.

Media

Oculus proudly talked about how the Go would bring all your entertainment into one place, with compatibility with Facebook, Instagram, Dropbox, networked storage, and your phone's internal storage. That's hardly comprehensive, giving obvious favouritism to parent company Facebook, but even linking to your phone doesn't work as intended. In fact the whole thing is so slow and glitchy you might as well not bother. The standard camera roll comes up fine most of the time, but if you try and do anything else you'll find yourself running into problems. Trying to open up the albums on my phone meant the system was unable to show me any image previews and got locked into a loading loop when I attempted to open one. The same happened after watching a video, heading back into the gallery meant all the photo previews were black and wouldn't load up until I went back to the homepage and started navigating again. Of course, those were the times trying to open an image sent me straight back to the homepage without warning.

Videos from the phone involved a lot of loading time, though that's probably to be expected seeing as how the two communicate by Bluetooth. If you want to watch videos with the Go you're going to need to load them onto the headset itself or stream them from an alternative source like Dropbox or Plex. But, despite that, once the media is loaded onto the Go itself the headset has zero problems dealing with it. Video in particular is nice, since it automatically transports you into a virtual cinema to watch it on the big screen. It's not clear how big that screen is, but it's definitely bigger than one you might find in your local multiplex. That said, IMAX size it ain't. Of course you'll need to keep an eye on how much storage you use. The Go only has 32GB inside, 23 of which is available for you to use.

The video app also lets you change the way you view the video, with support for 2D, 180-degree, 180-degree 3D, 360-degree, and 360-degree 3D. You can switch up any video you start watching, but obviously watching a 2D video in 360-degree 3D is not a good idea.

In terms of filetypes, Oculus confirmed that .AVI and .MP4 files are supported, but upon testing I also found that the Oculus Video app had no issues playing .mkv, .XVID, and .webm files. Of the ones I tested the only thing it didn't like was .flv and .wmv, so bear that in mind. I didn't test audio-only files, because if you're using a VR headset to listen to music or an audiobook, you're doing it wrong.

According to Oculus the people who've used its devices are very entertainment-focused, which is how it tackled the Oculus Go. So aside from including a virtual cinema, gaming, group sessions, and other entertainment-centric features, it's launching a brand new service called Venues. The idea behind Venues is to use the headset to watch live performances, be they concerts, sports games, films, or whatever else. That means you can beam into an event without having to go through the hassle of getting there, which is a lot more convenient - especially if you have obligations that mean you can't leave the house, like children. It makes me wonder whether there may be a time when you can use a VR headset to livestream film screenings, without having to go and suffer the indignity of sharing your personal space with other cinema goers or arriving dangerously dehydrated to avoiding having to run to the toilet halfway through.

Oculus Venues is, unfortunately, a US-centric app for the time being, but Oculus did confirm that it plans to roll it out globally so give it time and maybe we'll be able to get in on the action.

Oculus also mentioned that there's an all-inclusive TV app on the way, which brings all the entertainment apps into a single VR portal. Currently Oculus has partnered with CBS, Crunchyroll, and RedBull TV to include their content in Oculus TV, and naturally Facebook content will be in there as well. As for the companies not locked into a partnership deal that still support VR, like Netflix, Oculus TV can also be used as a launching platform for those apps.

Other features of note include Facebook Live integration, media sharing (via Facebook), and Rooms. Rooms is a more lightweight version of Facebook's Spaces, letting you connect with friends in VR to chat, play games, watch videos, and look at pictures. Rooms also includes an avatar system, though they're not particularly great. They work, but they're so basic and tacky-looking that they could do with an overhaul.

Overall

The Oculus Go is an impressive piece of kit. It's squeezed the mobile VR experience into a stand-alone device, in a way that's affordable and easy to pick up. What's more, it's comfortable to wear for extended periods of time, and doesn't look like a piece of garbage you bought in HMV for less than £20.

The downside is that it doesn't do anything particularly impressive, and if you already have a mobile VR headset then it's a tough sell. The display is of particular note, thanks to the RBG blurring around the edges that can be distracting at time. This certainly isn't the VR headset that will convince non-believers that VR can be useful for something more than a gimmick. But luckily, they don't seem to be the people this is aimed at.

The Oculus Go is for the casual user who doesn't have or need an expensive VR setup, or a phone that doubles as a headset from time to time. If you've never used VR before, or you don't have much experience for whatever reason, then it's a great way to take those first steps without having to resort to a cheap crappy cardboard headset. At £199 it's not exactly an impulse purchase, but there's certainly far less justification than shelling out for the full-fat Oculus Rift.

TL;DR 

  • Entry level headset, designed for people to use without any outside hardware. No PC, no mobile phone, nothing
  • Costs £199, available to buy today from Oculus.com
  • Speaker placement pumps it close to your ears and improves sound quality, but doesn't leak too much
  • The display is nothing special, and RGB blurring can be distracting when things can dark.
  • It's comfortable, with an improved strap that improves stability and weight distribution
  • The controller isn't unique in terms of functionality, but the ergonomic shape makes it so much more comfortable
  • Unsurprisingly it's very heavy on integrating with Facebook services, particularly media
  • Battery life is between two and two and a half hours
  • The virtual cinema in Oculus Video is the perfect addition, especially given the support for various 2D, 3D, 180, and 360-degree videos
  • Doesn't require huge amounts of space or movement, unlike gaming headsets which require both those things