There were times in the past when I was captivated by virtual reality. I remember, what seems like forever ago, getting to test the Google Pixel with the Daydream View ($99), Google’s VR headset, and being impressed. The games, like Hunter’s Gate and Gunship Battle 2 were pretty fun, but the real treat was exploring Youtube VR’s endless catalog of immersive videos. There were skydiving videos, rollercoaster videos, and videos that put you right on a rocket shooting into space — all the cliché 360 videos you’re probably heard about. And then there was nothing. I got bored. I put down the headset and forgot about it.
For me, these VR headsets — the Daydream View and the Samsung Gear VR — were a fun party trick. I’d break them out during family holidays, like Thanksgiving and Christmas, to watch my cousins and parents, a little bit tipsy, laugh and yell and reach out at what they thought was in front of them. It was fun but fleeting. Unlike many console games, I found most of these VR games more experiential than addicting. Not many people are going to want to spend hours wearing a headset, as they would playing Fortnite or FIFA.
Needless to say, the Oculus Go ($199) has to do a lot to shake this “party trick” stigma of other VR headsets. And to be fair, it does a little bit. Oculus’s first portable VR headset, unlike Google’s or Samsung’s VR headsets, doesn’t run off a smartphone, so you don’t need to worry (as much) about draining its battery. The Oculus Go’s graphics are a little better, too, but they still won’t blow you away (think 1080p vs 720p). It’s also the only VR headset of the bunch that has spacial audio, so you don’t need to wear headphones to get that immersive sound.
The big differentiating factor with any of these headsets, however, will always be its content. And while the Oculus Go doesn’t have access to YouTube VR like the Daydream View (which is a big bummer, admittedly), it does have access to all the same content as the Samsung Gear VR. For me, the coolest (and nerdiest) thing was playing Settlers of Catan in VR. I could play online with friends or strangers, or just against bots, but it gave you the feeling of sitting around a board and trading cards. It was way better than just playing the smartphone app.
Watching live sporting events is another big and burgeoning driver for virtual reality, and the Oculus Go is very much capitalizing on that. I watched two World Cup games with the Oculus Go — England’s big 6-1 win over Panama, and Brazil’s 2-0 win over Costa Rica — and the neat thing was that, unlike watching sporting events on the Daydream View, which lets you bounce around the stadium to get different viewpoints, the Oculus Go fixes you in one position (behind the goal) so it makes you actually feel like you’re assigned to a seat. I was able to watch the games with strangers, too. I could hear them speaking in different languages on my left and right, thanks to the spacial audio. It was all a bit strange, but cool at the same time, giving the matches a more of an international feel.
The Oculus Go does have some exclusive apps and games, which can’t be accessed from the Samsung Gear VR (and you can check out the exclusives, here). One of the coolest exclusives is Oculus TV, which allows you to watch certain apps, such as Netflix, Hulu and Showtime, with other people who have an Oculus Go. Say you and your bestie both love The Crown, but can’t watch it together because you live in different cities. Oculus Go allows you to watch it simultaneously and talk to each other, so if you’re somebody who likes to smack talk during a show, it could be a pretty neat future.
The Oculus Go doesn’t quite feel revolutionary compared to Daydream View or Samsung Gear VR headsets, but there’s potential that it could get there. I’m told that they’ll continue to push out Oculus Go exclusive content, which you’d expect, and they’re working on casting, too, so those who aren’t wearing a headset can still see what your looking at. That seems like a must to me.
Listen, I’d be lying if I said the Oculus Go weened me off my Xbox One and Nintendo Switch. It didn’t. I mainly used the Oculus Go a few times a week, maybe 30-45 minutes at time, playing games things like Poker VR and Catan VR, with a smattering of shooting games like Duck Hunter VR, Death Horizon and Anshar Online (which is sort of feels like old-school Star Fox). It was a great way to relieve stress during lunch or after hours.
Bottom line, if you’re just looking to get into VR and you have an iPhone, which doesn’t work with any VR headset, the Oculus Go is a cheap-ish entry-level setup to get you started. All the good games cost money, unfortunately, but the Oculus Go is going to keep getting better. Virtual reality, after all, is the company’s specialty.