2023 was a busy year for XR hardware, VR games, and apps. Here are Alan’s picks for the most impressive new releases and updates in the last 12 months.
The Meta Quest 3 is the best all-in-one VR headset currently available, and its hardware contains remarkably high specifications for a $500 device. With pancake lenses, higher resolution displays, and a fast Snapdragon XR2 Gen 2 chip, the Quest 3 could surpass the Quest 2 as the world’s most popular VR headset.
Meta is cutting margins razor-thin by offering this incredible value to entice more people to try VR. The Quest 3 is my top pick for best VR hardware of 2023 and the best choice for anyone looking for a top-quality standalone headset for gaming, exercise, and even working in VR. The Quest 3 can even mimic the Quest Pro, with a few customizations.
At the opposite end of the consumer hardware spectrum, the Pimax Crystal stands out as a remarkable achievement from a company that has often overpromised. The display is ultra-sharp and vivid, exceeding the quality of the previous best Varjo Aero.
The inside-out tracking is unique for a headset that tethers to a computer, a nice touch for anyone new to PC VR, since there’s no need for base stations. My colleague Ben found the Crystal to be uncomfortable, but it fit me perfectly and felt good despite the hefty weight.
It’s expensive for standard VR gaming, but worth the expense if you own a high-performance GPU and want to run Microsoft Flight Simulator and other VR sims.
In the realm of smart glasses, I found the Rokid Max to have the most compelling solution, beating both Xreal’s Air 2 and RayNeo’s Air 2 to market with a larger FoV and brighter displays. Rokid also integrates a diopter adjustment to fine-tune sharpness for my slight myopia.
Meta made significant changes to the Quest operating system and system apps in 2023. I use the Meta browser frequently and have complained in the past about the lack of several features common to desktop and mobile browsers.
Meta added a huge productivity boost for typing on the Quest with the new swipe keyboard. It works just like it does on a phone or tablet. I can drag a controller beam or a finger through letters, and the Quest fills in the correct word with good accuracy.
I also appreciate the ability to download images from the browser. This is one of the most overlooked and useful features of the new Meta browser. For my work, I need to save product images and app screenshots from a browser.
These two updates bring my Quest Pro a little closer to becoming a laptop replacement without cheating and connecting to a PC to get work done.
A great web browser is critical on a platform with a limited number of apps. Meta’s browser doesn’t quite qualify as great, but it’s getting better, and I appreciate the ongoing effort.
There have been so many great games this year, with a flood of top titles launching in December.
For action and a compelling storyline, Asgard’s Wrath 2 demands attention. It must have taken a herculean effort at optimization for Sanzaru Games to get such a great-looking AAA game to run well on a three-year-old Meta Quest 2, and quickly deliver a graphic upgrade for the Quest 3. I’m enjoying exploring the world so much that I’m in no hurry to complete it.
I enjoyed The 7th Guest VR, a chilling mystery with sometimes complicated puzzles in an atmospheric haunted mansion. I actually got goosebumps in a few of the scenes, and there are no jumpscares or cheap thrills. Set aside some time and make your way through this game leisurely to really soak in the atmosphere.
For mixed reality gaming, Drop Dead: The Cabin got my heart racing with a horde of zombies crawling through my actual window and hammering down my door. The new Home Invasion mode works great with the color passthrough of the Quest 3 and Quest Pro. Soul Assembly’s latest zombie survival game includes a complete multiplayer VR mode, and the game was specifically designed for two or more players.
I love the idea of ditching my bulky computer and twin vertical monitors for a portable AR or VR solution, so the apps that most often catch my attention solve computing problems that others haven’t addressed.
There are a couple of new productivity apps that make a Quest headset into a spatial computer. Fluid is an app that rethinks the Quest user interface with a focus on productivity, solving some of the Meta browser’s problems with web apps. In Fluid’s browser, Microsoft Office and Google Workspace apps work the same as they do on my computer.
The dev team is very active on Discord, inviting feedback, and responding to questions. Fluid is still in early development, but you can download it from Meta’s App Lab and start enjoying the benefits while testing the app and helping with feedback.
For its beautiful, dimensional interface, I also have to mention Softspace, an app that fills the air with your ideas with the help of AI and a web browser. It uses a hand gesture interface that lets me grab and move the entire workspace, windows, or individual elements. For designers looking to mind-map ideas, this app could be just what you’re looking for.
Honestly, I’ve barely scratched the surface of the VR films that are available. I enjoyed last year’s nerve-wracking documentary, Soloist VR, which follows a daring free climber on an attempt to scale the face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.
For 2023, I explored the more soothing environments of Oceania VR, a multi-part series about Australia’s Great Southern Reef. The underwater cinematography is excellent, and it’s fascinating to see the hidden world of sea life and kelp forests.
There are currently five captivating videos, each under ten minutes. Three more Oceania VR segments are planned.
The most surprising product of 2023 was the Ray-Ban Meta Smart Glasses. I had no interest in the previous generation Facebook Stories and didn’t expect to enjoy the latest Meta offering. However, after trying a pair and seeing the photo and video quality captured by its tiny camera, I was convinced.
The Ray-Ban wearables include Meta AI voice chat and a limited beta version of image recognition in the US, with plans to expand availability to more users soon. The smart glasses don’t include displays, so it’s a stretch to include this in an XR list. Still, it’s a notable product from a leading VR company and shows ongoing development of the glasses form factor for future Meta AR glasses.
Meta announced a partnership with Microsoft at the 2022 Connect event along with the Quest Pro launch. It really sounded like serious steps were being taken toward making the Quest a spatial computer. It was over a year before the Microsoft Office Suite arrived, and I’m disappointed with the results.
The Microsoft Office apps on Quest are simply web apps without the surrounding browser controls. The browser version is actually better since I can open three windows. With the Office Suite, I can only have one Word, one Excel, and one PowerPoint window.
I still can’t copy and paste in Microsoft Word or accept suggested text unless I pair a Bluetooth keyboard. The performance is sluggish on a Quest 2, slightly better on the Quest Pro, and usable on the Quest 3. Perhaps that was the reason for the delay.
Meanwhile, Meta and other VR developers optimize apps and rethink interaction to work well across all supported Quest headsets. Microsoft’s end-of-year efforts felt like an attempt to meet contractual obligations with no concern for VR usage.
In a nutshell
2023 was a great year for XR. Beyond the hardware launches and app releases, some exciting new products were announced, so there’s plenty more on the way in 2024. Stay tuned for all the latest VR and AR developments yet to come.
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