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 “enables the metaverse,” but the new features in Quest Pro seem to focus on more practical things, namely remote work and productivity.
The Quest Pro — available for pre-order today and shipping on October 25 — is also Meta’s answer to many of the shortcomings and annoyances of its earlier $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,” a Meta spokesperson said during a product preview last week.
Eye tracking and face tracking
The Quest Pro, unlike its predecessor, has sensors in the headset that track not only where your eyes move, but also your facial expressions — sort of a more advanced version of Apple’s iPhone Memoji feature. Expressions are formed.
At the product preview, a Meta engineer showed me a real-time readout in the headset of all those places on my own face that were measured and scored. There were maybe 40 – some around the mouth, some around the eyes, cheeks, nose, chin, forehead. The scores for each are used to mimic my avatar’s facial expressions, which I could see in the middle of my render.
So within collaborative experiences like Meta’s Horizon Workrooms, colleagues can see your reactions to what’s being said. They can tell when you close your eyes and if you’re looking at them as they speak. This is a big step towards making VR workspaces more believable and useful.
From ‘passthrough’ to mixed reality
When you wear 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 “pass-through” image displayed in the lenses in the headset is a key difference between the Pro and the Quest 2. The Quest 2’s pass-through images are a grainy black-and-white image of the outside world used primarily for safety; it lets you mark the real boundaries around you so you don’t run into an end table or a wall while playing Beat Saber.
The Pro uses passthrough for much more than just security, with a real-world display that’s four times the resolution of the Quest 2. And, crucially, it’s now in color. This improved passthrough is the centerpiece of the Pro’s approach to mixed reality, that is, the blending of real-world objects with the digital scenes created in the headset. (Another way is to make the entire front of the headset transparent and place digital images on and in the real world, like augmented reality glasses.)
The passthrough approach used by the Pro probably isn’t great 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 processor in the Quest 2. Meta has teams of engineers working on its own chip designs, but it has apparently chosen to relying on a designer with more experience in XR processing for his new headset.
Better hand controllers
The hand controllers are also getting a redesign and some new features. Gone are the sensor-laden plastic ring things over your hands. The new controllers know exactly where they are in the room, allowing 360-degree movement with no “dead zones,” says Meta. They also add haptic feedback, so if you use them in, say, a music app where you play virtual drums, you can feel when you hit the drumstick.
The controllers also add a slot on the bottom for a stylus, so you can turn it upside down and use it as a marker on a virtual whiteboard, for example. Importantly, the controllers allow you to pick up virtual things much better. For example, I found it quite easy to pick up a virtual dart between my virtual thumb and index finger and throw it at a virtual dartboard, a task that would have been much more inconvenient with the Quest 2 controllers.
About the design
The Pro uses a more open design, allowing you to see the real world in your peripheral vision while in virtual space. Gone is the dive mask-style experience of the Quest 2, which completely cut off the outside world. Meta-crafted accessory pieces that clip onto the sides of the Pro to block out outside light. Amazingly, they are sold separately for $69.
At 720 grams, the new headset is actually heavier than the Quest 2, but Meta has moved the battery to the back of the headset so that the weight of the device is more evenly distributed over your head. The design of the new headset reminds me of the design of Microsoft’s Hololens 2.
Interestingly enough, the front of the Quest Pro 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 facade can make the device look more accessible to those new to VR.
The (improved) remote work experience
For the remote work demo, I was asked to sit at a desk in front of a laptop and put on the Pro headset. Inside the headset, I was sitting at a virtual desk with a digital representation of the laptop on it. I saw before me a pair of smooth gray hands, the digital version of my own hands (the headset uses cameras to track your hand movements). I saw a large virtual screen hanging directly in front of me in the room. Below that was a small control panel where I could control the headset’s functions and dial in various apps and experiences. Horizon Workrooms was one of them.
On the other side of the (virtual) table I saw a Meta person I’ll call Jordan, or rather his cartoonish avatar (in virtual reality we’ll be stuck with cartoonish avatars for a while – they serve a purpose, and they can be improved upon. ) Tracking facial movements made Jordan’s avatar feel more human and expressive than the avatars I’d seen with the Quest 2. He laughed, raised his eyebrows, and made a funny face. The experience was more human and gave me more of the information I needed about Jordan to work together in a more lifelike way. The Spatial Audio technology also helps. I heard his voice in the headset and it sounded like he was coming from a place in front of me. When I turned my face away from him, it sounded like his voice was coming from behind me.
He changed the environment around us a few times. We sat on a terrace by the ocean in Greece. Then we were in a formal-looking boardroom and then in a small office space. He told me that when meetings get too big, it’s best to split into smaller groups, so he showed me a large virtual room with several smaller tables and a podium for the meeting organizer in the front. Suddenly Jordan was sitting at one of the tables across the room, and I could hear his voice speaking faintly from there. Then he teleported me to his table and sat in front of me again.
There was also a productivity view where you can sit and work at your virtual desk. You can set up your virtual office any way you want. You can have up to three large screens in front of you. In the demo, the screen of the real MacBook Pro was cast on one of the screens in front of me and I was able to control it with the trackpad on the laptop. I used another screen to meet Jordan and a third screen to watch a YouTube video. I probably wouldn’t be able to do these things so easily in the real world, and that they could indeed increase my productivity.
Jordan told me that with the improved passthrough and room mapping it was now possible to set up your virtual office to attract a part of the outside world. A Meta person, he told me, placed a permanent pass-through window in his virtual space so he could watch his son walk past his desk when he got home from school.
In my virtual office, I got up from my chair and walked a few steps behind me to a white board. I turned my hand controller upside down and used the stylus to write on the board. Jordan wrote me something on a virtual post-it and pasted it on the board. He told me these whiteboards are persistent; that is, you can return to them days later and find them in the same place in your virtual space, and find your scribbles from last time waiting for you.
Not revolutionary, but a good step
Within the mixed reality space, the holy grail is glasses powerful enough to put high-definition 3D images in front of 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, turned out not to be. We’re still a long way from the “glasses” vision, and getting there requires breakthroughs in some pretty fundamental technologies (batteries, processors, lenses, etc.). Even then, it’s unclear whether consumers will want to wear their PCs on their faces, or whether people will tolerate the risk of being observed (and possibly tracked or recorded) by such a device worn by strangers they encounter on the street.
But working remotely is real. And there is a real need for better technology to better facilitate it. People in some professions in some companies are already using mixed reality technology to collaborate, and in some cases they are saving thousands of dollars in travel costs by eliminating face-to-face meetings. The enhanced collaboration experience enabled by Pro features such as facial recognition and realistic passthrough could entice more people and businesses to try collaboration in VR. For some of them, the cost of a Pro headset can be covered by a single cancellation of a face-to-face meeting in favor of a remote one.
As for the productivity element, I’d have to experience it to be believed. I like the idea of a virtual workspace that does things my physical office can’t, but I’m not sure how well I’d tolerate carrying 720 grams of weight on my head for long periods of time.