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Who's afraid of VR? I was - until I tried Meta Quest 3

First-person shooters give me motion sickness. Face masks make me feel claustrophobic. Can I even dream of conquering my VR fears? With Quest 3, the answer is yes - and I've been having a lot of fun doing it.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor
David Gewirtz/ZDNET

If you've been paying any attention at all to ZDNET for the past half year or so, you know that one of the trends we find most intriguing is XR, the acronym used because AR/VR/MR (for augmented reality, virtual reality, and mixed reality) is just too cumbersome. Like generative AI, XR in 2023 has become usable and potentially practical to an audience wider than enthusiasts, early adopters, and researchers.

Also: Would you believe a VR headset outsold AirPods during Black Friday? 

In fact, just last week, we named the Meta Quest 3, a $500 XR headset, as ZDNET's Product of the Year for 2023. If, in January of 2023, you'd told me that a consumer VR headset -- from Facebook of all companies -- was going to be our top pick, I would have mocked you. But now, after my first experiences with the Quest 3, I have to concur. The Meta Quest 3 is a game-changer. I'm not yet entirely sure what areas of technology use this device is going to change -- but change things it will.

I've been tracking the technology behind VR for years, but with one limited exception, I never used it until just recently. That's because -- as the title says -- I'm a claustrophobic guy with glasses who is very prone to motion sickness. I can't even play first-person shooters for more than a few minutes without hosting a gastric rebellion.

My one previous VR experience was at a place called Magic Edge in Mountain View, California, where they put flight simulators inside actual moving plane cockpit mockups. I did not do well. So, I've been putting off trying out VR headsets until now. Reports are that the Quest 3 doesn't cause as much motion sickness as earlier headsets. And with the Apple Vision Pro coming out as soon as this or next month, it seemed prudent for me to begin exploring this experience.

Editor-in-Chief Jason Hiner and Reviews Editor Kerry Wan are way ahead of me in this. Jason uses a workout app called Supernatural almost every day in his Quest 3. And Kerry wrote ZDNET's definitive review of the Quest 3.

Also: Meta's $500 Quest 3 is the mainstream VR headset I've been waiting for, and it delivers

This article is not a review: It's an entirely subjective look at my first experience trying out something I've been avoiding for all the reasons outlined above.

Here's the TL;DR: I can actually use the Quest 3. So far, it mostly hasn't made me sick. And it's mind-bogglingly cool. With that, let's dive in.

Quest log

Every day that I explored the device, I recorded some notes. What follows are those notes, cleaned up for publication.

Delivery day

The Quest 3 is due to arrive today, and I'm both excited and nervous. Will I even be able to use this thing? I get nauseous playing simple first-person shooters. How vomitacious will a VR headset be? Plus, I'm uncomfortable wearing medical face masks. How will I feel wearing a full-face headset?

Also: CES 2024: 3 trends to watch as we learn what's next in tech

Two days later

It's here. I haven't touched it.

David Gewirtz/ZDNET

I'm concerned that if I start playing with it, either I will get sick and not be able to get my work done, or I will get distracted and not be able to get my work done.

Two weeks later

It has taken me this long to feel ready to move forward.

During this time, I've been watching a whole series of YouTube videos. That gave me some idea of what to expect, and also the understanding that I need to find an appropriate space where I can try this out. The obvious choices are the kitchen and the family room -- the only suitably open spaces in the house.

Today I used a random YouTuber holiday referral code that appears to have credited my account for $60 of future app store downloads.

Also: Meta removed a popular Quest headset feature - but there's a workaround

I also signed up and created a Meta account. You can use a Facebook account, an Instagram account, or a new Meta account. I didn't want to cross the beams, so I created a Meta account. I also had to create a Meta Horizons profile, although I'm not entirely sure what that is. (I later found out that's the chat room environment that comes with the Meta Quest. I haven't tried it yet.)

In any case, I now have that as well. Stay tuned. I'm hoping to put the headset on tomorrow.

Three days later

Well, I opened the box. I cleared a space and photographed the box. 

David Gewirtz/ZDNET

Then I opened it, and took pictures of the headset and the two controllers. 

David Gewirtz/ZDNET

I haven't yet put the headset on my head, but I plugged in the USB-C cord and it's now charging.

David Gewirtz/ZDNET

I also want to address my trepidation about this thing. While the Quest is AR and VR, and apparently the AR passthrough is good, I'm worried about the VR component. I don't have any large or safe "play spaces," so wherever I put this thing on will be chock full of tripping hazards.

The main family room area has our little dog and his toys, and he loves to dart out at light speed to move his toys and put them underfoot. My wife can hold onto him for my first test or two, but I'm still a bit concerned.  So while I'm excited to dive into this new technology, I have been putting it off as well.

Also: The $50 Meta Quest 3 accessory that I can't live without (and how to get it for free)

But now, nothing is stopping me. It's charged, I set up an account on Meta.com, I loaded the app onto my iPhone, and theoretically, I'm ready to go.

Four days later

OK. Wow. Seriously, wow. This is going to sound like a drug-addled dream, but for a moment, I was on a space station. I looked up, and instead of my ceiling, there was a nebula. 

Screenshot by David Gewirtz/ZDNET

Where my wall was supposed to be was a giant hub of a station. 

Screenshot by David Gewirtz/ZDNET

These screenshots don't do the slightest bit of justice to how impressive the view is from inside the Quest 3. But at least you'll get an idea.

Later, I ran another program and there was some sort of robot control unit in front of me. The table attached to it was so real that I almost set the controller down on it.

Screenshot by David Gewirtz/ZDNET

Let's back up. It was a mistake to put the not-turned-on Quest onto my forehead to adjust the straps. That was basically like wearing a blindfold  -- it was very disorienting.

Setup was a weird jumping back and forth between the headset's display and my iPhone. I finally handed the iPhone to my wife and had her operate the iPhone app to get the two to bind.

You have to adjust the focus knob (which adjusts pupillary distance) to get everything sharp and clear. Some YouTube videos recommend using an external app or your glasses prescription to measure pupillary distance, but that's just a waste of time. Move the knob back and forth until you can read the display clearly. That's it.

David Gewirtz/ZDNET

I had to put my glasses on because I could not achieve focus without them. There's a way to make the unit fit glasses. It's very awkward trying to put the headset on over them. I am worried I'll break either the glasses or the unit getting the headset on and off. Custom prescription lenses are available, and I'm going to have to order them.

Also: ZDNET's product of the year: Meta Quest 3 is the quiet shocker of 2023

Once I got things focused and the unit turned on, an enormous dialog box appeared in front of me, and I had to point and click with the controllers to set up the device. Eventually, I got to the main settings console. It was like standing in front of a control panel in mid-air.

Screenshot by David Gewirtz/ZDNET

I can not overstate how weird this is, but it's a good weird. I think.

The unit wants you to set room boundaries, and that's fairly easy to do if you have a wide-open room. Unfortunately, I have a very small space in my family room, and I'm not sure how to make that work. So I gave up on trying any of the standing applications or games that needed you not to trip over stuff in the room. Today, I'm just focusing on being able to access the settings.

Also: Meta's $299 Ray-Ban smart glasses may be the most useful gadget I've tested all year

Overall, I didn't get a lot of time in VR today, and I did find that the app switching and restarting process was very disorienting. But the actual time just looking around VR wasn't nearly as bad as I thought it would be, except for the inability to see anything of where I was standing or moving. That's just scary in a Dave's-a-bull-in-a-china-shop sort of way.

That said, after my first, very short experience in VR, I can say this: it has legs. I'm not sure how practical it will be to try to fight monsters in a tiny living room space, but the idea of replacing your visible space with something else works surprisingly well.

Next day

I spent an hour or so testing out the unit from the comfort of my couch.

I installed Netflix and YouTube. Then I ran into a snag, because logging into either of them was impossible because I didn't have access to my passwords. I'm sure there's some kind of trick I can pull with passthrough mode and see my passwords to type them in, but I didn't go there today. So I ruled out Netflix.

YouTube, of course, can be viewed without a password. The screen looked to be like 100 inches or so. Then I found the option to make the screen larger and it took up my entire field of view.

Also: These fantastic XR glasses gave my MacBook a 120-inch screen to work with

At this point, I decided to play a Yule log video. Big mistake. Do you know what it's like to have a 20-foot tall fireplace five feet in front of your face?

Another big mistake: watching my own YouTube videos. Do you know what it's like to have a 20-foot tall torso of me five feet in front of your face? Very disturbing.

But that's not to say this won't work. I just need to learn to tune it. I also ran into issues where apps that shouldn't need defined floor plans insisted on setting up bounding zones right in front of me. There was some kind of bounding cone between me and the YouTube screen, which seemed unnecessary.

Also: This ultraportable VR headset gave me a taste of Vision Pro at a fraction of the cost

When my wife came to the couch and sat down, and I was in immersive VR, I felt like I was being rude. She said it didn't bother her, but seeing a blank plastic headset over my eyes must have been a bit weird.

Then my dog got curious. He wanted to lick the big thing covering my eyes. I let him lick the base of my nose, but I was concerned he'd glob up the lenses. I never like to push the little guy away, so we'll have to find a way to negotiate having him in my lap and the goggles on my face.

That's as far as I got. Tomorrow, I want to try the main demo that comes with the device.

Three days later

I've been testing out the Quest 3 on and off for the past three days. I still have issues with the bounding zone, both because my space is small and because some of what you need to do isn't clear. That said, I'm fairly blown away.

I took Jason's advice and bought the Puzzling Places game. Its description as a 3D puzzle game doesn't do it justice. It's fun and relaxing to put the pieces together, yes. But what blew me away was how crisp the objects were. At one point, I built a little church, a building with a party on the top, and a train car. You can zoom in and look at the items, and they look like something from a model railroad, or a vintage diorama. You can see the super-tiny threads holding the Christmas lights as if these were actual threads.

Screenshot by David Gewirtz/ZDNET

I also tried Nature Treks VR. In some ways, it's a very simple app. It just generates a virtual world that's reminiscent of natural locations. But still, suddenly, I was in a field instead of my family room, and birds were landing on a branch next to me, and a little rabbit was hopping across the field. I'm not sure whether this is an app with long-term use potential, but it was wild how nice it felt to be in a sunny field when, in reality, it was late at night in a small family room. Definitely worth the six bucks.

Screenshot by David Gewirtz/ZDNET

Then I tried what is probably the most popular VR game out there, Beat Saber. There was a holiday deal that included the game and the Queen Music Pack for $39, so I picked it up out of my promo funds. I am not much of a rhythm game fan, but I bought it because I thought it was important to see what a successful VR game was all about. I'm glad I did. I wound up playing through 10 songs. I wanted to play longer, but I was starting to get a little disoriented and decided enough was enough for that session, although I am looking forward to getting back into it.

Screenshot by David Gewirtz/ZDNET

I also tried a flight game for about five minutes, but I started to feel queasy within the first few minutes. I'll try that again when I have a fresh session.

That's been my experience so far. Still on my to-do list:

  • Find productive uses for this device.
  • Try out the big-screen video experience.
  • Play some more games.
  • See how this works for meditation and relaxation.
  • Put my work desktop into VR.
  • Experience some educational content.  

I'll be exploring the Quest 3 and XR throughout 2024, so stay tuned.

Questions answered

Do you remember the Xbox Kinect? The Nintendo Wii? Both attempted to get you more physically involved in the games beyond a mere mouse or console controller. They were fun and popular, to a point. This is so very much more.

Before I started my foray into XR, I had a bunch of questions. 

Will it make me sick? For some experiences, like the flight games, yes. But for a lot of the experiences, no. I am surprised by how pleasant it is to use this, and how not sick I feel after the sessions are over.

Is the giant headset in your face uncomfortable or heavy? Not really. I haven't noticed the weight on my head while in XR. Afterwards, I just have a bit of a forehead mark similar to when I wear a baseball cap.

If you wear glasses, do you need them with the XR headset? I do, yes. Although I don't use glasses when reading my iPhone screen, the focal distance of the VR screens appears to make your eyes think that you're focusing farther out. Each glasses wearer will have a different experience.

Can you physically wear glasses inside the Quest 3? Yes. There's a way to adjust the device to give you more room inside for your glasses.

Is it practical to wear glasses inside the Quest 3? In my opinion, no. I came very close to breaking the side arm off of my glasses trying to get the headset off, and I kept feeling like they were going to bang into the lenses of the device inside the goggles. You can certainly use them for a few days, but if you're serious about using the Quest 3, you're most likely going to want to order custom lenses.

If you don't have a big space to move around in, can you still use the Quest 3? Yes, provisionally. I'm still not sure about the active gaming and exercise experiences, but the puzzle game didn't require much space, the nature VR experience was mostly standing still, and Beat Saber -- while needing room to wave arms -- didn't require leg motion. That said, the whole boundary system is still something of a mystery to me.

On a stressful day, can this help you get out of your head? Yes, it can. When I played Beat Saber, I was totally engrossed in the dark neon arena. When I played the puzzle game, I was engrossed in solving it to the exclusion of other distracting thoughts. There's real power in removing your environment for focus and interrupting a pattern of unruly thoughts.

That should answer most of the questions I had before putting on the device.

If you like gaming, if you like technology, if you want to experience something different, if you want to have that wow experience we all remember from way back when, and if you have a spare $500 to spend, you simply must get this thing.

Also: The day reality became unbearable: A peek beyond Apple's AR/VR headset

It's far from perfect and it's at the very beginning of where XR is going to go, but holy shoebox on your face, Batman, this -- not a $3,500 concept prototype from Apple -- is the new hotness.

I have no idea if you'll get productive value out of it, or if you'll still be using it in 2025, but I can tell you this: The Meta Quest 3 will take that ho-hum feeling you've been getting from most of the new hardware announcements, eat it, spit it out like a flame of fire, and light up your soul like no new tech I've seen in years.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to turn my family room into an undersea aquarium.

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to subscribe to my weekly update newsletter on Substack, and follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

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