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Meta Quest 3 Review: A Window Into Our AR / VR Future

Welcome to your augmented reality tomorrow.

meta quest 3
Will Sabel Courtney

Virtual reality is one of those technologies that's been lionized, demonized and romanticized endlessly over the years, but in the end, always seems to be a few years from becoming a widespread addition to our lives. I can recall playing with an acquaintance's Nintendo Virtual Boy back in the mid-1990s, being amazed at scanning a 32-bit digital realm of reds and blacks that left me briefly feeling like Arnold's T-800 ... until I got bored with it and went outside to play instead.

Likewise, augmented reality has seemed to hover on the edge of widespread adoption, in search of both killer app and proper hardware. A decade back, I had an iPhone app which would display the direction and distance to all nearby New York City subway stops, enabling me to follow the proverbial yellow brick road to wherever I needed to go. It was fun, but only lasted a couple years — presumably due to the fact that most people are more used to following directions on, y'know, a map.

In the last few years, though, it's been Mark Zuckerberg and the Facebook empire that have been trying the hardest to move the AR / VR ball downfield, even going so far as to rename the company "Meta" to stress its mission focus on the, ahem, metaverse.

The company's latest device that attempts to take advantage of this potential future — assuming that ChatGPT and its successors don't learn all our secrets and devour society before Zuck can get people fully invested in the metaverse — is the Meta Quest 3, the company's first headset to include augmented reality features. Those are enabled in large part by the trio of blisters packing stereoscopic cameras and range-finding sensors on the front of the device, which both help the wearer see the world around them and help the device map out potential obstacles for when you're immersed in your own personal holodeck simulation. (It's also slimmer and sleeker than previous models.)

The Quest 3's biggest rival will come next year, with the arrival of Apple's hotly anticipated Vision Pro. Even so, the two will be far apart in a lot of ways: visual quality, design, ecosystem — and, most importantly, price. While Apple's device starts at $3,499, the Quest 3 starts at $499.

Meta Quest 3: What We Think

The Quest 3's augmented reality features give it an impressive leg up on prior devices that trapped you in virtual realms, which both open up new AR-specific uses and simply make using the goggles for VR more convenient. The virtual reality games and programs are compelling to watch, play with and use, and even viewing more traditional media feels groundbreaking when leveraged through AR. It's an impressive step on the way to a future of Vision Pros, supersmart spectacles and Iron Man HUDs. Still, it hasn't yet broken free of all the issues that have dogged VR/AR for some time, from difficulty using with glasses to the occasional bout of motion sickness, and the controls aren't as intuitive as more traditional tech devices.

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Augmented reality does feel like the future (if a beta version of it)

a person playing a game wearing a meta quest 3 headset
I’m not sure if this model is meant to represent what the user is seeing on his end, but if so, well, the real version isn’t quite that good. It’s still cool, though.

Sliding on a virtual reality helmet has always been a bit disorienting; the world disappears, leaving your eyes to comprehend a low-grade simulacrum instead. It's easy to become disoriented, and the difficulty of strapping and releasing the device to your head.

The first wonder of augmented reality is that it lets you slide back into the real world. Instead of having to pull the device off and suspend your session to take care of mundane tasks, you can minimize what you're doing in Meta-world and just ... do real-world things.

The Meta Quest 3 doesn't show reality in crystal clarity, mind you. The feed coming through its cameras feels like a video chat over a low-speed connection; the world seems pixellated, the colors marbled and simple. Still, it's good enough to help you navigate your house without hitting anything and enable you to grab your preferred soda from the fridge, or avoid your cat's food bowls.

The second, arguably more impressive feature of augmented reality is the ability to superimpose the virtual world over the actual one. Open up a video app — I tried both YouTube and PlutoTV — and the video appears in a floating two-dimensional panel that hovers in the middle of your room, in line with your eyes at the time you popped it open. Watching Star Trek on it felt like a revelation — one of those rare moments where a product makes you feel a step closer to the future of Kirk and Picard.

The controls and interface are a little funky

meta quest 3 controller
Will Sabel Courtney
meta quest 3 controller
Will Sabel Courtney

The dual controllers for the Meta Quest 3 are hand-specific. Each packs two control buttons, two triggers — one each for index finger and thumb — and a joystick, as well as different menu buttons.

Anyone used to the ease of navigating the digital world with either a keyboard and mouse or the flick of a finger on touchscreen glass — which is to say, pretty much everyone nowadays — may find the Meta Quest 3's user interface a little finicky.

Power it on, and you're met with a home screen hovering in front of you, complete with items you can select using the wireless controllers in your left and right hands. Instead of free-floating mouse pointers, each controller gives off a sort of virtual laser beam, which you then hover over the icon you want and click the controller's trigger to select.

Thing is, though, those "laser beams" feel a little shaky, at least compared to a mouse or trackpad that's constantly being supported by a table or laptop. And since they follow your hands at all times, you have to reacquire your targets every time you move your hands — and trust me, you move them a lot. Plus, depending on how the home screen loads, it might show up so small as to make reading and tapping those icons unreadable — and embiggening it isn't as intuitive as it should be. It's not a dealbreaker, but Meta certainly could use some more human-focused UI experts from Google or Apple if the company really wants to get into this game.

It works with glasses, but not perfectly

a man wearing a mask
The Meta Quest 3 fits over glasses fairly well, but it won’t do anything for your hair.
Will Sabel Courtney

Early versions of Meta's VR headsets, like most competitors of the era, weren't really meant for those of us who wear prescription glasses. Several years ago, I took an Oculus Go out for a spin a few times, but had to bust out my outdated high school eyeglasses — sourced from the Matrix-adjacent era when oval Oakley lenses were all the rage — just to find a pair that could fit inside the headset.

The Quest 3 is much more accommodating of glasses frames and prescription lenses, with an adjustable face shield that slides forwards and back. The system makes it much easier for those of us who can't / don't like to wear contacts to try out the device ... but it's still not an ideal solution.

My glasses are midsized and square, and while they do manage to fit in the device, it's not a great fit. The Quest 3 pushes them up too high onto my nose, making them feel uncomfortable on my face, and throwing off my focal point; the latter effect is exacerbated by the fact that the glasses also cause the device to ride a bit too high. After using the device, I'm always left with a sense — real or imagined, I'm not sure — that the device has bent my glasses in some slight way, which certainly doesn't make me want to strap the Quest 3 back on my head soon.

If I were planning on using them regularly, I'd likely buy a second pair of smaller-lensed, thin-framed specs just for use with the Quest 3. Still, in the long run, I'd really rather prefer the Apple Vision Pro's method of inserting prescription lenses directly into the device.

Virtual reality has come a long way, but it's still far from seamless

Immersive VR videos that record in a complete sphere around you are truly fascinating from a technical standpoint, but as of now, they're of limited practical value. They tend to be short — those files are biiiiiig – but they're arguably more limited by the fact that human vision can't perceive the majority of what's being projected. Our eyes can only take in around a max of 220 degrees of horizon, and around the same on the vertical axis; that means the vast majority of the 360-times-360-degree video on a true immersive VR presentation is going unseen most of the time. Waving your head around to spot the sharks coming up behind you is fun, but it doesn't make for great storytelling — something necessary for artists to buy in.

Gaming is a more natural fit for the device, even arguably perhaps the best until something else comes along. I tested out a free first-person shooter called Population: One, which felt a little like a past-gen Xbox or PlayStation game — a little blocky, but fluid, with graphics neither worthy of praise nor damnation.

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The gameplay is certainly immersive — both in terms of the depth and detail of the environment and the controls, which combine both tactile button taps and physical hand movements with the dual controllers. I had to physically reach out to grab ammo packs and weapons, load magazines and rack slides with actual motions, even climb walls hand over hand — all while also using the joysticks on the remote to walk about and pivot my POV (at least, when I didn't want to turn my head). It felt far more intuitive than the typical button tapping of traditional consoles, although there was certainly still a bit of a learning curve.

Still, while I came away impressed, I also came away needing Dramamine. A 10-minute video game session left me feeling disoriented and dizzy, and only in part from listening to prepubescent boys spewing racial remarks in the game. Between the confusing divergence of an immobile body and a rapidly, jerkily moving perspective and the pressure of my glasses being pressed into an awkward position, it felt far less natural than playing on a TV or computer. That said, of course, if you don't wear glasses and / or have a particularly impervious inner ear, I'd bet it would wind up being a much more entertaining way to play first-person shooters and other gaming staples than the ol' console.

And that's not to mention the many ways AR games mix the real world and the digital one to create innovative possibilities — or even just the ways that virtual reality could make otherwise-bland video game fodder compelling. A rock climbing game — call it Hold Fast with Alex Honnold, perhaps — would probably be boring as hell on your PC, but it could be absolutely thrilling on the Quest 3.

Meta Quest 3 (128 GB)

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