Facebook’s new Oculus Quest headset is a great gaming device that simplifies virtual reality (VR), doing away with the need for an expensive PC and external tracking hardware. But with its integrated tracking, the Quest can also teach us a thing or two about the future of virtual and augmented reality.
Those two areas of immersive computing have long proceeded on separate tracks. Augmented reality (AR) overlays digital objects over a view of the real world. It is especially popular on smart phones, with companies like Snapchat, Facebook, Apple and Google all shipping technologies that enable AR filters, lenses and similar effects.
Microsoft, Magic Leap and some other AR startups have been building and selling headsets that offer a glasses-like form factor, complete with AR games and enterprise applications. Both approaches unite in that they very much depend on a view of the real world, provided either through phone cameras or translucent glasses.
Virtual reality (VR), on the other hand, has been all about immersion, with dedicated headsets like the Quest as well as Facebook’s Oculus Rift, HTC’s Vive and Sony’s Playstation VR system offering users access to immersive games and stories. All these devices completely block out the real world, transporting users into virtual living rooms, space stations or even into the middle of an animated movie.
Experts have long predicted that these two paths of immersive computing will eventually converge, with one device offering both virtual and augmented reality experiences. That notion, also known as mixed reality, makes a lot of sense. After all, consumers don’t buy one phone for voice calls and one for video chats, and they don’t have two separate laptops for word processing and spreadsheets.
What that convergence will actually look like is a lot harder to fathom, especially as the device form factors are still very much evolving. Will consumers have a switch on their smart glasses that will allow them to block out the real world and transition to a VR experience? Will their futuristic mixed reality contact lenses ominously turn black whenever they ask a voice assistant to transport them to a VR world?
Facebook’s new Oculus Quest suggests another possibility. The Quest is still a true VR device, and Facebook doesn’t pretend to offer any AR capabilities with it. But even in VR, users do have to be mindful of the real world — especially if they don’t want to accidentally crash into their living room bookshelf.
The Quest solves this issue with what is being called a guardian system. Upon first putting on the headset in a new environment, users get to see a grayscale, low-resolution view of the real world, and are then being asked to map out their play space. After that first setup, a grid appears every time a user is in danger of leaving that play space when in VR. Go further, and the Quest switches back to the grayscale view of the real world. Take a step back, and you are back in VR.
Check out the Quest Guardian in action in this YouTube video:
That experience of the real world lurking just beyond the borders of your VR playspace is oddly fascinating. The Quest uses its integrated cameras for video pass-through, which explains why the images are as low-fidelity as they are. The cameras are primarily meant to track the controllers used with the headset, as well as the position of the headset itself in a 3D space, making it possible to lean into VR experiences, and reach out for virtual objects.
But even with those visual constraints, walking up to a Quest guardian and sticking your head through it feels like a profound transition from one world to another. It also hints at the another possibility for the convergence of AR and VR: Users of future headsets or glasses may not just have a switch to choose between AR and VR, but also make that transition as they physically move through space.
Entering one area of your home may trigger VR mode, while another may lead to a transition to an AR experience. Location-based entertainment spaces of the future may also use these same kinds of transitions for mixed reality experiences, effortlessly allowing users to walk into and out of immersive worlds. And while the Quest currently uses a guardian system to keep you safe in VR, future guardian systems may be outward-facing, and alert you that immersion is just a step away.
That kind of fluid transition between different modes of immersion also comes with a lot of challenges around safety as well as privacy. After all, tracking and video pass-through rely on always-on cameras, which could result in companies ingesting huge amounts of visual and spatial information.
Luckily, we’ll have some time to figure out those issues while companies like Apple and Facebook work on their future mixed reality hardware. But to truly be prepared, we might have to follow their work closely, and at times even walk up to their virtual boundaries, ready to take another step.