By | December 28, 2023
XR 2023: My take on the year's best AR/VR hardware and apps

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 of the past 12 months.

Best hardware

The Meta Quest 3 is the best all-in-one VR headset currently available, and its hardware packs remarkably high specs for a $500 device. With pancake lenses, higher resolution displays and a speedy Snapdragon XR2 Gen 2 chip, the Quest 3 could surpass the Quest 2 as the world’s most popular VR headset.

Meta cuts the margins right down by offering this incredible value to entice more people to try VR. The Quest 3 is my top pick for best VR hardware 2023 and the top choice for anyone looking for a top-quality standalone headset for gaming, training, and even work in VR. The Quest 3 can even mimic the Quest Pro, with a few tweaks.

At the opposite end of the consumer hardware spectrum, the Pimax Crystal stands out as a remarkable achievement from a company that has often over-promised. The screen is ultra-sharp and vivid, surpassing the quality of the previous best Varjo Aero.

The inside-out tracking is unique to a PC-connected headset, a nice touch for anyone new to PC VR, as there’s no need for base stations. My colleague Ben thought the Crystal was uncomfortable, but it fit me perfectly and felt great despite the hefty weight.

It’s expensive for standard VR gaming, but worth the cost if you own a high-performance GPU and want to run Microsoft Flight Simulator and other VR sims.

In terms 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 the market with a larger FoV and brighter screens. The Rokid also integrates a diopter adjustment to fine-tune sharpness for my mild myopia.

Best feature

Meta made significant changes to Quest’s operating system and system apps in 2023. I use the Meta browser frequently and have previously complained about the lack of several features common to desktop and mobile browsers.

Meta added a huge productivity boost to typing on the Quest with the new swipe keyboard. It works just like it does on a phone or tablet. I can drag a control beam or a finger through letters, and Quest fills in the correct words 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 being a laptop replacement without cheating and hooking up to a PC to get the job done.

A good browser is essential on a platform with a limited number of apps. Meta’s browser isn’t great, but it’s getting better, and I appreciate the ongoing effort.

Best game

There have been so many great games this year, with a flood of top titles launching in December.

For action and a compelling plot, Asgard’s Wrath 2 demands attention. It must have taken a lot of effort to optimize Sanzaru Games to make such a nice looking AAA game work well on a three year old Meta Quest 2 and quickly deliver a graphical upgrade for Quest 3. I enjoy exploring the world so much that I’m in no rush to finish it.

I enjoyed The 7th Guest VR, a terrifying mystery with sometimes complicated puzzles in an atmospheric haunted mansion. I actually got goosebumps in some of the scenes, and there are no jump scares or cheap thrills. Set aside some time and work your way through this game at your leisure to really soak up the atmosphere.

For mixed reality games, Drop Dead: The Cabin made my heart race 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 walkthrough in Quest 3 and Quest Pro. Soul Assembly’s latest zombie survival game includes a full multiplayer VR mode, and the game was designed specifically for two or more players.

Best app

I love the idea of ​​ditching my bulky PC and dual 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.

There are a couple of new productivity apps that turn a Quest headset into a spatial computer. Fluid is an app that reimagines Quest’s user interface with a focus on productivity and solves some of the Meta browser’s problems with web apps. In Fluid’s browser, Microsoft Office and Google Workspace apps work the same way they do on my computer.

The development team is very active on Discord, inviting feedback and answering 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 using AI and a browser. It uses a hand gesture interface that allows me to grab and move the entire canvas, windows, or individual elements. For designers looking for mind map ideas, this app might be just what you’re looking for.

Best movie

Honestly, I’ve barely scratched the surface of the VR movies 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 footage 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.

Biggest surprise

The most surprising product of 2023 was the Ray-Ban Meta Smart Glasses. I had no interest in the previous generation of Facebook Stories and didn’t expect to enjoy the latest Meta offering. But after trying a pair and seeing the image and video quality captured by its tiny camera, I was convinced.

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 hard to include this in an XR list. Still, it’s a remarkable product from a leading VR company and shows ongoing evolution of the goggle form factor for future Meta AR glasses.

Biggest disappointment

Meta announced a partnership with Microsoft at the 2022 Connect event alongside the launch of the Quest Pro. It certainly sounded like serious steps were taken to make the Quest a spatial computer. It took over a year for the Microsoft Office Suite to arrive, and I’m disappointed with the results.

The Microsoft Office apps on the Quest are simply web apps without the surrounding browser controls. The browser version is actually better because I can open three windows. With Office Suite, I can only have one Word, one Excel and one PowerPoint window.

I still can’t copy and paste into Microsoft Word or accept suggested text unless I pair a Bluetooth keyboard. Performance is sluggish on a Quest 2, slightly better on the Quest Pro and serviceable on the Quest 3. Maybe that was the reason for the delay.

Meanwhile, Meta and other VR developers are optimizing apps and rethinking interactions to work well with all supported Quest headsets. Microsoft’s efforts at the end of the year felt like an attempt to meet contractual obligations without concern for VR use.

In a nutshell

2023 was a good year for XR. In addition to the hardware launches and app releases, some exciting new products were announced, so there’s a lot more to come in 2024. Stay tuned for all the latest VR and AR developments to come.

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