Quest Pro: Even in Meta’s best helmet, the Metaverse seems gone

If Mark Zuckerberg was successful, we’d all be making Zoom calls as 3D avatars through computers on our faces.

I recently got to sample the latest and greatest experience of what the co-founder of Facebook calls the metaverse. It was more like a meh-taverse.

I caught a glimpse of the Quest Pro headset, unveiled Tuesday by Meta as the culmination of billions of hardware developments. Most people will probably never own a Quest Pro headset, in part because it sells for $1,499.99, nearly four times the price of its predecessor. But more than seven years after unveiling its first virtual reality platform Oculus, its state-of-the-art has us pondering a big question for the future of everyone’s use of personal technology: When will the metaverse actually be a part of how many people communicate? , work and create? After spending two hours with the Quest Pro, it never felt further away.

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The Metaverse is meant to be a way to interact online in a way that feels closer and breaks down the boundaries between the physical and virtual worlds. The Quest Pro goes beyond the VR goggles we’ve seen before by superimposing digital images onto what’s actually in front of you. And it tracks your eyeballs and facial muscles to help you express your emotions through a virtual avatar.

These are tough technical challenges, but the Quest Pro doesn’t seem to handle them very well. It also introduced new kinds of dangers: should you trust the company behind Facebook’s privacy hackers to track your every move?

After testing the headset in six creative and workplace demos selected by Meta, I still couldn’t identify a killer example of how Meta’s big hardware leap unlocks Metaverse’s lack of promise.

Meta says Quest Pro is just the next step in realizing its full-fledged metaverse vision and is aimed at early adopters, artists and businesses. Yet last year Zuckerberg literally bet the farm on the idea that this was the next big thing, changing the name of his company from Facebook to Meta. Even Apple wants a piece of it and is expected to unveil its own competing headphones in the coming months.

The Meta’s hardware was last updated in 2020 with the Quest 2 headset, which still retails for $399.99. During the pandemic, some have found them useful for gaming, fitness and joining niche communities. The company has sold at least 10 million VR units, but that’s a far cry from Meta’s billions of other products.

It is easy to criticize a technology that is trying to do something very new. So let me just say: The meta improvements in Quest Pro, which goes on sale October 25th, seem to focus on key user concerns like making interactions with other people feel more human. Still, I felt a disconnect between how the Meta describes its new abilities and how it actually felt to use right now.

Let’s review three of the biggest developments.

The previous Quest put weight and warmth on your face as all gear is in the front, with a strap along the back and top. The Quest Pro is a complete redesign where the battery rests on the back of the head so that the weight is distributed more evenly. It also uses its cameras to guide you in adjusting it for the best fit.

A perfect metaverse is years away. Meta’s prototypes prove it.

The Quest Pro is much better balanced, but there’s just one problem: Meta has also increased the total weight by almost half, from 500 grams on the Quest 2 to 720 grams on the Quest Pro. After using it for two hours, I noticed subtle lines on my forehead, not to mention a headache.

So far in the metaverse, avatars have felt stiff. To address this, the Quest Pro uses cameras in and around the front of the device to capture subtle aspects of facial movement, from a wicked smile to an arched eyebrow. Then it can apply them to your avatar in real time.

At least that’s how it works in theory. During my demos, the Quest 2 could barely catch my eyebrows – one of my most distinctive features. (Meta said my goggles, which I had inside the helmet, might be in the way.) He also couldn’t tell when I stuck my tongue out.

The even bigger problem is that it didn’t lead to a magical experience. Based on a video presentation from Meta, I imagined that I would have my own Pixar character. Far from it: the avatars of the people I interacted with were only slightly animated and sometimes looked a little drunk. (One avatar I interacted with kept grimacing a bit—I don’t think it was on purpose.) I couldn’t tell if this was a problem with an underpowered CPU running the Quest Pro, Qualcomm’s Snapdragon XR2+, or Internet bandwidth problems.

And then there are the privacy implications of all this data. Meta says face and eye tracking are optional and disabled by default, and images captured by cameras are processed on the device and then discarded. Great, but that’s not the end of the story. Your facial movements are converted into a constant stream of data points that can leave the device. In fact, other apps may also request to access it.

So does that mean if you watch “Queer Eye” in the metaverse, Netflix might learn it every time you start crying? Or could Facebook tell advertisers how long you actually watched their ads and whether they made you smile? None of this seems explicitly prohibited, though Meta says that apps that want to use facial data must first ask for permission. Who trusts Facebook to handle this in our best interest?

The biggest leap for the Quest Pro is that it now only does VR. With older Quest devices, you were mostly blind to everything except the virtual world. Quest Pro’s so-called “mixed reality” technology brings inside the headset a color image of your immediate surroundings, so you can interact with it and augment it with virtual images. For example: the controllers included with the Quest Pro act as virtual pens, allowing you to virtually doodle on your real desktop or whiteboard.

Again, this sounds good in theory. But the real world I saw inside Quest Pro didn’t feel very real to me. It’s not like looking through regular glasses or even a color video camera. What I saw was more like the underwater scenes from the movie “Aquaman”, distorted and washed out.

The Quest Pro can run all the same largely gaming-focused apps as its predecessor, but Meta showed me demos designed to take advantage of its new technology. Two lets me make some 3D art in the space in front of me. Another lets me see and move around a 3D version of something like Google Earth. A third put a virtual DJ deck in front of me for avatar lessons from a real DJ instructor. I can’t imagine having to – or even wanting to – do these things again.

VR developers accuse Facebook of withholding keys to metaverse’s success

The mixed reality experience that Meta himself put the most work into was a reimagining of the office called Horizon Workrooms. I saw three virtual screens projected from a real laptop in front of me with a cutout to the real world at the bottom so I could type on the computer’s keyboard. It was not a good experience: the screens and mouse were extremely slow and a bit disorienting.

Now Meta wants to open up the Quest Pro to more app developers, who might come up with better ideas that make it easier to ignore the device’s technical limitations. The biggest question for the future of the Metaverse is finding a really, really compelling reason to use a face computer instead of a phone or laptop.

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