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Meta Quest 3 review: powerful augmented reality lacks the games to back it up

The Meta Quest 3 can power augmented reality board games like Demeo.
Meta
The Meta Quest 3 can power augmented reality board games like Demeo.

The Quest 3, Meta's new stand-alone VR headset, outshines its predecessor in nearly every way. But while you get more power for the $500, it's really designed to do something the Quest 2 couldn't: look out at the world around you and interact with graphics generated by the visor itself.

Apple has bet big on this augmented reality model, but their headset will cost a ludicrous $3500. The Meta Quest 3 hopes to be much more accessible, but it still lacks a killer app — a compelling reason to shell out the hundreds of dollars it costs over the Quest 2.

Where's the fencing game Mark Zuckerberg showed off a year ago? Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas VR was announced in 2021 — where is it now? Zuckerberg called the Quest 3 "the first mainstream mixed reality headset," but where are all the mixed reality games?

The Meta Quest 3 boasts improved pass-through cameras, comfortable "pancake" lenses, and updated controllers.
/ Meta
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Meta
The Meta Quest 3 boasts improved pass-through cameras, comfortable "pancake" lenses, and updated controllers.

Across the Metaverse

Meta has poured tens of billions of dollars into developing headsets and smart glasses since it purchased VR pioneer Oculus in 2014. CEO Mark Zuckerberg even changed his company's name from Facebook to Meta, though he recently laid off employees working to build his so-called metaverse.

While playing Meta's mixed reality demo, First Encounters, I noticed the little fuzzball aliens I was attempting to capture and contain were dancing, jumping, and even hiding behind my real-life furniture.

It's not all bleak for Meta, however, which has still managed to sell more headsets than anyone else. Even if you lay aside the promise of "mixed reality," the Quest 3 proves to be a worthy upgrade to the already-popular Quest 2.

Let's talk about the good news. The Quest 3 comes in a box half the size of its predecessor. It's noticeably smaller, while sporting some of the highest-quality visuals yet for VR goggles. The new "pancake lenses" (a smaller and clearer lens set) like those on the Quest Pro significantly improve on the Quest 2's bulky "fresnel" lenses. Now, you'll rarely have to adjust your headset to get it in focus, unlike the constant readjustment needed with fresnel lenses. The Quest 3 also boasts a new chipset, with snappier menu navigation and pristine graphics. While I'd advise users spring for a nicer head strap than the one provided, the Quest 3's stock strap is still more comfortable than the Quest 2's.

Then comes "pass-through" cameras — which provides video of your surroundings while your eyes are covered by the headset. I honestly expected more from a device advertised as a mixed reality entry-point. While its color image outclasses the murky grayscale of the Quest 2's cameras, its grainy video quality is still noticeably warped. It used to be impossible to make out a phone screen through a Quest 2 or Quest Pro's pass-through cameras. With the Quest 3, it's challenging but doable.

The new depth sensor and updated cameras also allow for an automatic guardian system that requires you to simply look around your play space to detect your walls, floors, ceilings and furniture. This scan creates new "spatial data" which not only keeps you from punching your walls or TV by accident, but also enables new games and experiences.

Close encounters

The Quest 3's spatial awareness led to my one truly awe-inspiring moment with the device. While playing Meta's mixed reality demo, First Encounters, I noticed the little fuzzball aliens I was attempting to capture and contain were dancing, jumping, and even hiding behind my real-life furniture. I could look out into the parts of my living room wall where the fuzzballs had broken through, and even shoot out segments of my wall to reveal an alien landscape on the other side. This short tech demo was the coolest thing I've seen so far on the headset, and it's a shame that there's not more to it.

Other mixed reality experiences included Xponential+, which features branded gym workouts from the likes of Pure Barre, Stretch Lab, and Club Pilates. You can place your holographic trainer anywhere in your room to lead you in exercises. There's also Xtadium, a sports-viewing app that allows you to watch live games from multiple angles on a giant, virtual TV.

Another feature called "shared spatial anchors" allows for local multiplayer with games like Demeo and the upcoming Demeo: Battles by "anchoring" augmented reality objects (such as a tabletop or board game) into a fixed place in space, allowing you to see room around you while interacting with the same objects. I got to test this between my Quest 3 and Quest 2 and it worked well.

I next played Dungeons of Eternity, a new hack-and-slash game which really showed off the Quest 3's graphical enhancements, with superb lighting and more brilliant detail than what I tried on the Quest 2. Assassin's Creed Nexus VR, Asgard's Wrath II, Ghostbusters: Rise of the Ghost Lord, and Stranger Things VR are all slated to release this year.

Dungeons of Eternity is more crisp and high-resolution on the Quest 3 than Quest 2.
Will Mitchell / Meta
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Meta
Dungeons of Eternity is more crisp and high-resolution on the Quest 3 than Quest 2.

It's a promising line-up, but Meta missed an opportunity to come out with a bang at launch with more than one great mixed reality experience. However, the impressive hardware could be enough to justify the $500 for existing enthusiasts and well-heeled holiday shoppers. By the time late November rolls around, there might be just enough to make mixed reality look enticing.

Will Mitchell is NPR's Streaming Media Manager and an all-around VR enthusiast.

James Perkins Mastromarino contributed to this story. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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