When the Oculus Rift debuted a few days before the HTC Vive in 2016, the Facebook headset cost less, was missing important features and offered less freedom to move as you like.

Yet Rift was the more comfortable headset overall and many people it with the expectation that Facebook would follow through and eventually close some of those feature gaps.

The Oculus Go standalone headset is in much the same position as Rift was when it launched, but this time it is competing not just against HTC and its more expensive Focus standalone, but also it is in stores alongside the first standalone Daydream headset powered by Google’s WorldSense tracking technology. I haven’t had significant time with Focus, so this piece instead compares Lenovo Mirage Solo to Oculus Go.

Overview

Oculus Go feels lighter, fits more comfortably and includes the larger, more robust VR content library in comparison with Mirage Solo. I’d estimate there are roughly hundreds of decently constructed virtual worlds available on Oculus Go while there are only dozens on Mirage Solo. From these pools of ‘decent’ content, there are much fewer high quality worlds you’ll want to show friends or  revisit repeatedly. You also need a good Wi-Fi connection to watch a plethora of content from at its highest resolution on the Mirage Solo.

Go also includes a convenient Web browser that’s easily accessible all the time. This makes it possible to access websites like Slack, Twitter and Facebook for quick check ins between visits to worlds, or you can reset the view of the browser so it is on the ceiling and you can browse the Web in bed. This browser also makes it easy to access interesting Web-based experiments and WebVR worlds.

Overall, this means that as it ships today with features made obvious to the end user, for $250 there are more things you can do with a 64GB Oculus Go than with a $400 Mirage Solo and the same amount of included storage. While I believe Oculus Go remains the better buy for most people, after spending more time with Mirage Solo and accessing some of its hidden features — including a version of the Chrome browser -— I see there will be a subset of buyers who will find the increased expense for Solo more than worth it.

Here’s a deeper look at how Mirage Solo works and how it compares to the less technically capable Go headset. I am continuing to test the headset and will provide updates to this post and others comparing the headsets as I learn more.

Cross Purposes

Both Oculus Go and Mirage Solo use as the underpinnings of their operating systems. But only Mirage Solo is listed as having compatibility with the Google Play Store.

This means that — out of the box — Mirage Solo is compatible with the vast library of content on the Google Play Store. I’ve successfully tested like Amazon Prime Video and ComiXology on the headset, including downloading content locally for offline viewing. The appear to float in mid-air one at a time, and you can point at them with the controller to simulate the touch of your finger.

For someone willing to go through the extra steps to access their apps this way, Android app integration may be a system-seller for Mirage Solo. Hopefully Google improves this feature so you can resize and place the apps wherever you like.

Take Your Life In Your Hands And Be Free

There is a very simple way of accessing a hidden developer menu on the Mirage Solo. This menu enables helpful features like the ability to take screenshots and record video. The menu can also be used to disable safety boundaries.

It is extremely dangerous to deactivate the boundaries. The Mirage Solo utilizes Google’s WorldSense tracking technology to make regular seated body movement more comfortable. You can lean around fine but even a half step in any direction and you encounter the software-imposed limit.

The default size of the space appears carefully designed for standing and seated use, and to provide maximum safety in those two specific use cases. The tracking — which depends on the outward-facing cameras  — is fantastic in these scenarios. But by default the boundary of the space seems to be less than a meter wide. It is not adjustable. You can, however, turn the boundary off completely from that secret menu.

There are a number of times I can recall where my blindness to the real world would’ve led me to smash my head into my dining room table if the world didn’t didn’t fade to black when I went too far. It doesn’t feel good when the fade-out happens, but in the grand scheme of things this is better than hitting your head on something.

This tight limit also obscures the robustness of Google’s tracking technology. Some of the content you can experience with it — including art exhibitions in an app like BLVRD — can provide a fantastic sense of presence when leaning up close to the art. In other virtual worlds, though, right when you feel so enraptured by the world that you try to see it from an extreme angle, is invariably when the boundary appears to remind you not to feel so inquisitive.

The moment I erased the boundary I started to see incredible potential in the Daydream platform Google is building on top of Android. During my journey covering VR headsets there are certain demos I find more memorable. There was my first duct-taped demo from Oculus co-founder Brendan Iribe, Titans of Space in an Oculus Rift HD prototype, Lucky’s Tale on a DK2, The Blu in the HTC Vive developer kit, Oculus Medium with Touch, or Santa Cruz with controllers at OC4. Now there’s the moment I took a consumer standalone headset and basically set up a giant virtual Android TV between my dining room and kitchen. And then, with the safety features turned off,  I play on Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 from my existing Amazon library and started dancing to the music.

Not only is this Amazon app not accessible on Go, it also wouldn’t have been comfortable to do something as simple as dancing in VR. I started moving closer to the TV. My wife saw her husband leaning over and grinning at the air between rooms. I was maybe six inches from the virtual TV and smiling during a moment of almost complete presence. This is the moment when I decided Mirage Solo was worth the extra $150 for certain buyers — especially some developers and early adopters. Mirage Solo especially makes more sense compared with Oculus Go for buyers less interested in distance-destroying social apps (though there are some still available) and more interested in that enhanced comfort, as well as in privately interacting with their Android library projected onto a virtual big screen TV.

Second Screen Viewing

Chromecast integration continues to provide seamless second-screen viewing on Mirage Solo. A similar feature is in the works for Oculus Go, but its inclusion with Daydream may also be a system seller for some because it makes showing friends and family VR experiences much easier.

Life in VR by the BBC elicited a squeals of joy from my family, and both Wonderglade and Virtual Virtual Reality can be fun with the whole family able to share in those journeys watching the TV. One family member swooned over the cute otters in the Life app, while another laid down and enjoyed the virtual California sunshine and birds flying overhead. It was incredibly gratifying to finally show my family that kind of freedom and joy in a standalone VR headset after so many years struggling with tracking equipment, PCs, and phones while writing about the potential of this technology. It felt good to finally see a glimpse in my own of a standalone headset which is starting to fulfill the promise of VR as new computing platform.

Bottom Line

I was initially unimpressed with the Mirage Solo as a consumer product. Chrome and other Android apps were seemingly absent and the WorldSense-capable content library leaves much to be desired. But after discovering the possibilities of its hidden features, I’ve realized Google didn’t drop the ball with Solo so much as force an evolution of Android into the wild before some of its more compelling features could be finalized. So Google hid some of those incomplete features in a menu and Lenovo shipped the headset as close to Oculus Go as possible.

I don’t believe either Mirage Solo or Oculus Go is going to see extensive use on par with a cell phone or laptop. Both headsets have a limit in how useful or immersive they can be, and that’s set primarily because of the pointer-only hand interaction of a 3dof controller. Also, Mirage Solo has a rigid headband that makes it more more difficult to take places. Nevertheless, either headset could realistically take over some tasks occupied by an iPad or tablet while offering some exhilarating worlds to visit too.

I could now see myself recommending either headset to early adopters who understand the headsets are good only for limited entertainment-focused use cases, and my advice will likely mimic that which I gave people trying to chooe between Vive and Rift. There’s a lot to consider, and you have to understand the ways in which each headset might be used. If you’re highly susceptible to simulator sickness or plan to show VR to lots of other people, Mirage Solo might have the edge. But for many potential buyers, getting a hands-on demo of each headset is advised before making the call.

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