The company formerly known as Facebook announced its next-generation VR headset, the Meta Quest Pro, at its Connect developer conference on Tuesday.
Meta says the device “metaverse-enabled,” but Quest Pro’s new features seem focused on more practical things, namely remote work and productivity.
The Quest Pro, which is available for pre-order today and will ship Oct. 25, is also Meta’s answer to many of the shortcomings and annoyances of its old $399 Quest 2 headset. It’s a logical and thoughtful upgrade, but at a much higher price of $1,499. The Pro is aimed at a slightly different audience than the Quest 2. “With the Pro, we’re trying to take Quest beyond gaming and entertainment and into productivity, collaboration, and creativity,” said a spokesperson for Meta during a product preview last week.
Eye tracking and face tracking
The Quest Pro, unlike its predecessor, has sensors inside the headset that not only track where your eyes move, but also your facial expressions, much like a more advanced version of Apple’s iPhone Memoji feature. Expressions are formed.
During the product preview, a Meta engineer showed me a real-time readout in the headset of all these places on my own face being measured and noted. There were maybe 40 – some around the mouth, some around the eyes, cheeks, nose, chin, forehead. Each one’s scores are used to recreate my avatar’s facial expressions, which I could see in the middle of my view.
So in collaboration experiences like Meta’s Horizon Workrooms, colleagues can see your reactions to what’s being said. They can see when you close your eyes and if you look at them while they talk. It’s a big step forward in making VR workrooms more believable and useful.
From “passthrough” to mixed reality
Wearing the Pro, you rely on a pair of cameras on the front of the device for your view of the real world around you. This “passthrough” image displayed in the headset lenses is a key difference between the Pro and the Quest 2. The Quest 2’s passthrough images are a grainy black-and-white view of the outside world that’s primarily used for security; it allows you to delineate the boundaries of the real world around you so you don’t bump into an end table or a wall while playing Beat Saber.
The Pro uses passthrough for more than just security, with four times the real-world view of the Quest 2. And, best of all, it’s now in color. This enhanced passthrough is the centerpiece of the Pro’s approach to mixed reality, i.e. mixing real-world objects with the digital scenes created in the headset. (Another way is to make the entire front of the helmet transparent and overlay digital images on and in the real world, like in augmented reality glasses.)
The passthrough approach the Pro uses probably isn’t ideal for playing Pokemon Go in the park, but it might be better for attending virtual meetings in VR from your home office.
The Pro is powered by a new Qualcomm chip called the Snapdragon XR2+, which Meta says is 50% more powerful than the Quest 2’s processor. Meta has engineering teams working on its own chip designs, but it apparently has chose to rely on a designer with more experience in XR processing for their new headset.
Better hand controllers
The hand controllers also get a redesign and new features. No more sensor-laden plastic rings on your hands. The new controllers know exactly where they are in the room, allowing 360-degree movement without “dead zones,” says Meta. They also add haptic feedback, so if you’re using them in, say, a music app where you’re playing virtual drums, you can feel when your drumstick hits.
The controllers also add a slot at the bottom for a stylus, so you can hold the thing upside down and use it as a marker on a virtual whiteboard, for example. Above all, controllers are much better at letting you pick up virtual items. For example, I found it quite easy to take a virtual dart between my virtual thumb and index finger and throw it at a virtual dartboard, a task that would have been much clumsier with Quest 2 controllers.
About the design
The Pro uses a more open design, allowing you to see the real world in your peripheral vision when you’re in virtual space. Gone is the Quest 2’s scuba-mask-style experience, which completely shut off the outside world. Accessories made by Meta that you can attach to the sides of the Pro to turn off the light from the outside. Surprisingly, they are sold separately at $69.
At 720 grams, the new headset is actually heavier than the Quest 2, but Meta moved the battery to the back of the headset so the weight of the device is more evenly distributed over your head. The design of the new headset reminds me of Microsoft’s Hololens 2.
The front of the Quest Pro, interestingly, is shaped like a large pair of sunglasses. Where the Quest 2 looks like a white brick strapped to your face, the Pro’s black, reflective front may make the device more accessible to people new to VR.
The remote work experience (enhanced)
For the remote working demo, I was asked to sit at a desk in front of a laptop and put on the Pro headset. In the headset, I sat at a virtual desk with a digital representation of the laptop sitting on it. I could see a pair of smooth gray hands in front of me, the digital version of my own hands (the headset uses cameras to track your hand movements). I could see a large virtual screen suspended in space directly in front of me. Below was a small control panel where I could control headset functions and dial in different apps and experiences. Horizon Workrooms was one of them.
On the other side of the (virtual) table, I saw a Meta person whom I’ll call Jordan, or rather his cartoonish avatar (in virtual reality, we’re going to be stuck with cartoonish avatars for a while – they serve a goal, and they can be improved.) Due to facial movement tracking, Jordan’s avatar felt more human, more expressive than the avatars I’d seen with Quest 2. He was laughing, raising his eyebrows , made a funny face. The experience was more human and gave me more information I needed about Jordan to collaborate more realistically. Spatial Audio technology also helps. I could hear his voice in the headset, and it sounded like it was coming from somewhere in front of me. When I turned my face away from him, I felt like his voice was coming from behind me.
He changed the environment around us a few times. We were on a terrace by the ocean in Greece. Next we were in a formal-looking conference room, then in a small office. He told me that when meetings get too big it’s best to break into smaller groups, so he showed me a large virtual room with a number of smaller tables and a podium for the meeting organizer. meeting up front. Suddenly, Jordan was sitting at one of the tables across the room, and I faintly heard his voice speaking from there. Then he teleported me to his table and he was sitting in front of me again.
There was also a productivity view where you can sit at your virtual desktop and work. You can configure your virtual office as you wish. You can have up to three large screens in front of you. In the demo, the real-world MacBook Pro screen in front of me was projected onto one of the screens, and I could control it using the laptop’s trackpad. I used another screen for a meeting with Jordan and a third screen to watch a YouTube video. I probably couldn’t do these things very easily in the real world, and it could indeed increase my productivity.
Jordan told me that due to improved passthrough and room mapping, it’s now possible to set up your virtual office in a way that appeals to some of the outside world. A Meta person, he told me, put a persistent walk-through window in his virtual space so he could see his son walking past his desk when he came home from school.
In my virtual office, I got up from my chair and walked a few steps behind me to a whiteboard. I flipped my remote over and used the stylus to write on the board. Jordan wrote me something on a virtual post-it note and stuck it on the board. He told me that these whiteboards are persistent; that is, you can come back to them a few days later and find them in the same place in your virtual space, and find your doodles from the last time waiting for you.
Not revolutionary, but a good step
In the mixed reality space, the holy grail is a pair of glasses powerful enough to put high-definition 3D images before your eyes, yet slim enough to be worn for long periods of the day, even in public. After all the rumors, Project Cambria, now the Quest Pro, didn’t turn out to be that. We are still a long way from the “glasses” vision, and to achieve this, it will be necessary to make breakthroughs in certain fairly fundamental technologies (batteries, processors, lenses, etc.). Even then, it is not clear that consumers want to wear their personal computer on their face, or that people tolerate the risk of being observed (and possibly tracked or recorded) by such a device worn by strangers than they know. they pass in the street.
But remote work is real. And there is a real need for better technology to better facilitate it. People in certain professions in some companies are already using mixed reality technology to collaborate, and in some cases they’re saving thousands of dollars on travel costs by eliminating in-person meetings. The enhanced collaboration experience made possible by Pro features like face tracking and realistic passthrough can entice more people and businesses to try VR collaboration. For some, the cost of a Pro headset may be covered by a single cancellation of an in-person meeting in favor of a remote meeting.
As for the productivity element, I would have to experience it to believe it. I like the idea of a virtual workspace that does things my physical office can’t, but I don’t know if I could handle carrying 720 grams of weight on my head for long periods of time.