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Meta’s newest VR headset is impressive. Here’s why you probably won’t buy it

<i>Meta</i><br/>The Quest Pro comes with a charging dock that can power up the headset and controllers.
The Quest Pro comes with a charging dock that can power up the headset and controllers.

By Rachel Metz, CNN Business

Meta’s newest virtual-reality headset, the Meta Quest Pro, is a slick, powerful device. It can display text and fine details in VR, making it possible to read even small type with ease. It can track your eyes and facial features, giving you a sense of connection with other people in virtual spaces: If you arch your eyebrows or they puff up their cheeks in real life, so too will the VR avatars. And it can be used as a mixed-reality headset, showing you a view of the world around you in color while letting you interact with digital objects — whether you’re painting on an ersatz easel or putting on a faux mini-golf course.

But the black headset, which Meta unveiled on Tuesday during an online event, is probably not in your price range. At $1,500 ($1,499.99, to be precise), it costs nearly four times that of the company’s cheapest Quest 2 headset. Its price, power, and potential are aimed more toward businesses — think architects and designers — with pockets deep enough to shell out for the headset, and some creative and die-hard VR users.

Buyers can pre-order the Quest Pro as of Tuesday, and it will ship out on October 25. It can be purchased online directly from Meta, and in the United States it can also be bought at Best Buy stores, via Best Buy’s website, and through Amazon.

The capabilities of the Quest Pro mark an important milestone for Meta (and for CEO Mark Zuckerberg), which has spent years and billions of dollars steering toward a future where it believes people will spend more and more time in virtual spaces and mixing digital elements with the real world. The company’s VR unit, Reality Labs, is still tiny compared to its main business of selling ads on Facebook and Instagram, and costly: Meta said it lost $2.8 billion during the second quarter of this year because of Reality Labs.

It’s also a major strategy shift, showing the company is now pushing its best VR technology to business customers, hoping they’ll be eager to use VR and mixed-reality apps at work. It’s a plan that could be lucrative, though it risks alienating its consumer VR business (the company plans, from here on out, to have two Quest product lines and to use the higher-end one to decide which features to add to the less expensive one).

This shift may unnerve companies such as Microsoft and Magic Leap, which have been working for years to convince enterprise users that their pricier mixed-reality headsets represent the future of work. (Microsoft, maker of the mixed-reality HoloLens headset, is apparently hedging its bets by bringing its software to the Quest Pro and Quest 2, in a partnership announced Tuesday at Meta’s Connect event, which focuses on its latest advances in virtual reality and related technologies.)

And it’s not clear whether — or how — this powerful device will help Meta popularize the so-called metaverse, which Zuckerberg believes so strongly in that he rechristened Facebook as Meta in 2021. Meta is the leader in the nascent VR headset market with its consumer-geared Quest 2 headset, but that market is still tiny compared to, say, console gaming.

I spent several hours using the Quest Pro last week at a Meta office near San Francisco, coming away both impressed and flummoxed. It was quickly clear that it’s not intended to be a headset for the masses — a decision that will frustrate some Quest 2 owners waiting for an upgrade to the two-year-old headset. Yet it does offer a glimpse of what VR and mixed-reality experiences may be like in the coming years: better looking, more fun, and increasingly intuitive.

Eye and face tracking

The Quest Pro looks markedly different from the Quest 2, as Meta took the battery out of the main body of the headset, curved it, and moved it behind the wearer’s head. This, plus a dial on the back of the head strap that lets you adjust it precisely (making it much easier for those of us who wear glasses to keep them on in VR), gives it a layout reminiscent of HoloLens 2. The dial also makes it easier to get the headset on and off, especially if you have long hair.

Unfortunately, this new layout may mean that some people find it less comfortable to wear, particularly over an extended period of time. With the increased weight behind my head and just a knob to adjust the single strap around my noggin, I had to keep adjusting it slightly. I wore multiple identical headsets over the course of roughly two hours; after six different demos, ranging from virtual painting to DJing, I left with a headache.

One of the most noteworthy new features on the Quest Pro is its ability to track the wearer’s eyes and face — something that may make people feel more present when interacting with other avatars in virtual spaces. To do this, the headset uses five infrared sensors to capture details like where you gaze and whether you sneer, smile, frown, or raise an eyebrow. This tracking is turned off by default; Meta also said that it’s processing eye and face images on the headset and then deleting them, and that this will be the case even for developers who add this tracking to their apps.

I tried this new tracking out while playing around with a demo of a green-faced alien character, named Aura, that Meta is making available to developers so they can get a feel for how it works. With the Quest Pro on my head, I could smile, sneer, wink, scrunch up my eyes, wiggle my nose, and so on, while Aura did the same, in real time (unfortunately, there is no tongue tracking). The responsiveness and specificity of Aura’s facial mimicry was impressive, even at this early stage.

This kind of tracking feels like a step in the direction of what Zuckerberg promised was coming after he was widely criticized online in August for a Facebook post featuring an image of his blocky, cartoon-like avatar in Meta’s flagship social app, Horizon Worlds. Upon its release, Quest Pro users will be able to use it in that app and Horizon Workrooms, Meta said, as well as in several developers’ apps such as painting app Painting VR and DJ app Tribe XR.

Updated hand controllers

The headset is also more of a mixed-reality headset than a VR headset, as it isn’t meant to block out all ambient light all the time. This is a big departure from Meta’s past focus on immersive VR, where your physical surroundings were typically more of an obstacle than an asset. Meta is including magnetic light-blocking panels that can pop on to the sides to cut out more light, and starting in late November, it will also sell a $50 accessory meant to fully block out ambient light.

Letting some surrounding light in is part of the company’s effort to make headset wearers feel in touch with their physical surroundings. To build on this, the Quest Pro uses outward-facing cameras on the headset to let you see your surroundings in color (rather than black and white, as on the Quest 2), and continues Meta’s recent push toward getting apps to interact with the real world.

This was on display during a demo in which I used Painting VR to paint on a virtual canvas, moving around a real-world space set up with a virtual brush and tool stand on one side of the canvas and a shelf of paint cans on the other. I could mix paints, grab brushes, and post my finished (and admittedly awful) painting on the actual wall behind me, all while seeing what was happening around me and getting advice from the app’s creator.

The hand controllers that accompany the Quest Pro will also play an important role in both VR and mixed-reality apps, and they’ve been vastly improved over the ones that come with the Quest 2. Now, rather than relying on the headset to help determine where the controllers are in space, each controller includes three sensors to shoulder the load. This means they can track 360 degrees of motion, which should make for smoother and better hand and arm tracking in all kinds of apps. (Sadly, they won’t track your legs in VR, but Zuckerberg announced on Tuesday that Meta will be using AI to bring full-body avatars into Horizon Worlds sometime in the future.)

A pressure sensor on each controller enables more precise motions than with the current Quest 2 controllers. I tried this out with a demo in which I was able to pick up and toss around a variety of small objects like a teacup, blocks, and a garden gnome. I found that if I picked up the teacup gently, particularly by the handle, I wouldn’t harm it; if I grabbed it, however, I crushed it (I mostly crushed it).

The things the Quest Pro and these controllers can do without connecting to a powerful computer or setting up a slew of external sensors seemed impossibly far away when then-Facebook bought VR headset maker Oculus in 2014. At that time, most people didn’t even consider VR a mass-market technology; eight years and billions of dollars later, we know and expect more. The headset may deliver technologically, but it will be up to Meta’s customers to decide whether it’s worth the price.

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