Oculus Quest can locate the user in a room and adapt the virtual environment, allowing the person to move, jump and walk around.

Facebook and its Oculus virtual reality outfit aim to make VR more than just fun and games.

At its developer conference in San Jose, Calif., Oculus introduced its latest stand-alone headset, the Oculus Quest — and an ambitious play to expand its virtual world with platform updates that include customizable clothes, more emotional facial expressions for avatars and other assets.

Quest, née Project Santa Cruz, is “the VR experience we’ve been waiting for,” said Facebook founder and chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg. The company describes the $399 device as a desktop-level experience encapsulated in a convenient, wire-free unit.

Oculus has been working on this technology for three years, and VR enthusiasts have been champing at the bit for this device, saving their pennies for its eventual release.

Mainstream consumers are another matter, however. VR’s traction has yet to light the market on fire. Researchers at Market Research Future predicted it would take nearly a decade for adoption to make the great leap of 57 percent, for a market value of $45 billion by 2027. Even game developers who were initially bullish about VR have had to take a deep breath. In January, an annual survey conducted by the Game Developers Conference showed declining interest in creating VR apps for systems like the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PlayStation VR, and more bite-sized tech like Google’s Daydream and Cardboard, not to mention Samsung’s Gear VR. The reason: Lackluster consumer interest.

But that was before the introduction of the Oculus Go and the Oculus Quest. Whether that will change the outlook may determine the shape of VR things to come for years.

Michael Abrash, Oculus’ chief scientist, remains optimistic. He believes VR and AR will not only start to converge more — and soon — but together they will “replace personal computers and mobile as primary ways humans will interact with information and each other.”

“At the first Oculus Connect, I told you that VR was going to change the world,” he said. “Although we’re not there yet, I’m more certain than ever that that will happen.…Not only are we still creating the future, but over the next few years, we’re going to see the rate of change accelerate sharply.”

To get there, the company is attacking the problem on two fronts — addressing gaps in the hardware and pushing the boundaries of its software.

The front view of the Oculus Quest.  Courtesy image

In layman’s terms, Oculus Quest solves the biggest issue hampering the company’s previous stand-alone headsets: They couldn’t locate users and place them in the virtual environments. So people couldn’t just walk around or explore. Oculus Quest can, thanks to something called “inside-out tracking,” four sensors embedded in the goggles that can scan walls, floors, ceilings and furniture, in addition to sensors in the touch controllers. The system can detect hard edges and surfaces, the distance between the users and those surfaces, and adjusts the environment to account for that.

Imagine a shopper being able to peruse virtual aisles, instead of remaining static or unnaturally pointing to move. It removes a barrier, and makes the VR space mimic a real-life experience even more, but without the tether of an expensive or complex system.

The fashion sector has been intrigued with the notion of virtual reality, and the Oculus Go is already being used by retailers to offer branded experiences, as well as other scenarios. Walmart is a major proponent of Oculus VR, scooping up as many as 17,000 units for training personnel.

The Quest and Go offer tiers of experience. Mapping the expanding world of Oculus headsets, the Quest sits between entry-level mobile-based VR, like Samsung’s Gear VR — which is also powered by Oculus — and full PC systems like the Oculus Rift. The generally well-liked and well-reviewed Oculus Go, the company’s previous stand-alone headset announced in May, improves on the smartphone-based experience, primarily by extracting the phone from the equation.

The Quest lives closer to the desktop end of the range. It was built to run “Rift-quality experiences,” Zuckerberg explained, and features “inside-out tracking, full freedom to move around, no cables, no external sensors, really good positional tracking. It’s got adjustable fit, so it’s comfortable to wear with glasses.” It even offers better 360-degree audio than the Oculus Go, for which it was a highlighted feature.

The company also made its Oculus Home a more customizable space to socialize in, giving people more selection and freedom to personalize the space. Developers get software tools that allow them to provide custom assets, like chairs and carpets, as well as the ability to provide custom clothing for their avatars.

The VR maker’s executives emphasized how the platform updates support some fundamental needs. They’re focused on creating more robust social opportunities. They outline the critical need for more immersive storytelling, with movies, games and events, including the addition of NBA games and related team-themed virtual apparel. They also spoke about the need to make virtual experiences more emotional, introducing avatar updates that allow for eye contact and more expressive facial features.

In that way, VR has the same priorities as retail. Shopping is an intrinsically social and emotional journey, and brands are waking up to the power of storytelling.

“After unveiling Quest, we have now completed our first-generation portfolio of VR headsets,” said Hugo Barra, vice president of VR. “These are going to become the established platforms where you will find your audience and build your business. At Oculus, we’re going to continue investing heavily in technology for future generations of products on these three platforms.”

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