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Facebook Oculus Quest 2 Review: Solid V.R. Headset, but Few Games

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A group of five boxers and I recently threw punches to upbeat music while an instructor egged us on. By the end of the 20-minute workout, I’d broken a sweat and my smartwatch showed my heart rate thumping at 140 beats a minute.

Normally, this would be the result of a workout at my local gym. But in a pandemic that has forced most fitness centers to shut down, I had to settle for a make-believe boxing class while wearing a computer headset and jabbing and punching with a pair of motion-sensing controllers.

That’s just part of what I’ve been doing in Facebook’s new virtual-reality system, the Oculus Quest 2, which the company unveiled on Wednesday, to escape from the seemingly never-ending pandemic-induced stay-at-home session. In another game, I played Texas hold ’em poker with a table of chatty players. In still another, I rowed a kayak to infiltrate an enemy base.

The Oculus Quest 2 is Facebook’s latest foray into virtual reality gaming. In this version, Oculus, the virtual-reality company that Facebook acquired for $2 billion in 2014, took what it learned from earlier experiments selling bulky headgear wired to powerful computers as well as wireless goggles that relied on smartphones to run games.

Now the Quest 2, the company said, blends the best of both worlds. It’s a complete virtual reality system inside a portable headset (no phone required). And if you want to play more powerful games, you have the option of attaching the headset to a personal computer (which will require buying a separate PC for upward of $829) for extra horsepower.

“Everything felt to us like we were compromising on this or that, but now we can say we have this hybrid experience,” said Prabhu Parthasarathy, a product manager for Facebook’s Oculus.

Based on my tests for a week, the Quest 2 is a major improvement from the Oculus Rift, Facebook’s first virtual-reality system in 2016. The Oculus Rift suffered from a complicated setup, awkward controls and lackluster games — and it required a powerful computer to work, which drove the cost up to $1,500.

The Oculus Quest 2, which costs $300, is more compelling and easier to set up. There are now also more than 200 titles for people to choose from, including puzzle games, shooters and creativity apps.

So how was it? Compared with sitting next to an air purifier while doomscrolling through news about the California wildfires, I had fun in Facebook’s virtual la-la land. But many of the games quickly felt repetitive and strained my eyes. In the end, I much preferred vegging out with my PlayStation or Nintendo consoles, which have far superior video games.

Here’s how the Quest 2 works, its pros and cons and what to expect if you buy a virtual-reality system today.

ImageThe Quest 2’s headset and controllers include motion sensors to follow your head and hand movements.
Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Compared with past virtual-reality systems, the Quest 2 is a breeze to set up. You simply download the Oculus app to your phone and log in with your Facebook account. (In October, Facebook will begin requiring new Oculus users to log in with Facebook accounts.) The app then walks you through how to turn on the headset and synchronize the two wireless controllers.

The headset and controllers include motion sensors to follow your head and hand movements. For safety reasons, don’t expect to walk around: You’ll only play Oculus virtual-reality games either standing up or sitting down. When you stand up, the system lets you see through the headset using a camera so that you can use the controllers to draw an outline around your play area to avoid striking obstacles.

The headset feels lightweight and includes adjustable straps and lenses. Over all, the video looked clear. But after moving your head around a lot, images can look blurry and it will occasionally need readjusting to bring the picture back into focus.

The headset’s battery will last two to three hours, and it’s rechargeable by plugging in a USB cable. The motion controllers use AA batteries, which will last many sessions — I still haven’t had to replace them.

You can easily buy games through the Oculus app store. Here’s where my praise for the system begins to fade.

I asked Oculus product managers to name a few of their favorite games that would show the Quest 2’s strengths. Ultimately, I felt most weren’t worth my money.

Consider Beat Saber, a rhythm game that involves swinging your arms to hit objects with light sabers. At first, this felt like a fun demonstration of the Quest 2’s three-dimensional motion-sensing capabilities. But it got old quickly because it reminded me of Dance Dance Revolution and Guitar Hero, two popular rhythm games from more than a decade ago.

Another recommended title was Phantom: Covert Ops. It’s a stealth game where you sneak into enemy bases by rowing around a kayak and shooting opponents from the boat. This game, which is played sitting down, got frustrating quickly because the rowing motions are tedious. I also couldn’t stop thinking about how the premise of a stealth kayak was laughably implausible and how much I’d rather be playing Metal Gear Solid, the stealth game that this one imitates. (In that game, at least I got to move around with legs.)

I picked out other games that suited my interests. PokerStars VR was an interesting approach to online poker: Just like in a casino poker room, you sit at a card table and use the controllers to pick up your chips and cards, while the players around you have conversations using their microphones. This made me nostalgic for my old in-person vice, but sitting on the couch waiting for cards to be dealt while wearing a headset and controllers tired my eyes and made my body feel stiff.

I also downloaded Cook-Out: A Sandwich Tale, because it was on Oculus’s list of most popular games. True to its name, the game is about assembling sandwiches to serve to customers. This game (can a task even be called a game?) got boring almost immediately. It also made me ponder why I spend so much money in real life on sandwiches when I could easily make them on my own.

My favorite game, which was recommended by Oculus staff, was FitXR, the boxing simulator, in large part because I took boxing classes for many years. The game makes clever use of the motion controllers to require players to do realistic punching motions; wimpy punches don’t score points. There were always plenty of players online to compete with, which kept me motivated through each workout.

In the end, I paid $110 for the Oculus games and only felt happy with the $30 I spent on FitXR. I regretted spending $20 to $30 on the other titles because they brought me minutes of entertainment, not hours. In contrast, a mainstream game for PlayStation or Nintendo typically costs $60, but provides dozens of hours of entertainment.

That’s all to say that Facebook has nailed the Oculus hardware, but it still has a long way to go with content. I’m still waiting for a virtual-reality game that truly consumes me like The Last of Us Part II did on PlayStation 4 or The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild did on Nintendo Switch.

To be fair, virtual reality content in general still has a long way to go. Sony also offers a $300 V.R. headset, the PlayStation VR, which plugs into the PlayStation console, and its V.R. games also aren’t as compelling as standard console titles.

Lewis Ward, an IDC analyst who follows the video games industry, said that V.R. games were slowly getting better, but Oculus missed a major opportunity with this pandemic: applications that help people work remotely. It lacks a good remote work tool like Zoom or Slack, which could have lured many businesses to virtual reality.

“V.R. would have had its moment,” Mr. Ward said.

Facebook said it was accelerating its plans around using virtual reality for work. Last year, it started Oculus for Business, a program to help companies set up virtual-reality work environments. For $799, it said it would bundle the Oculus Quest 2 with special business-ready software that helps companies train employees, design products and collaborate on projects.

For now, fitness feels like the category where V.R. can have its moment. After a few days of playing the boxing simulator FitXR, my arms felt sore. That was either a sign that V.R. had done its job well — or that my muscles had atrophied after six months without a gym.

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The Trump campaign celebrated a growth record that Democrats downplayed.

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The White House celebrated economic growth numbers for the third quarter released on Thursday, even as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign sought to throw cold water on the report — the last major data release leading up to the Nov. 3 election — and warned that the economic recovery was losing steam.

The economy grew at a record pace last quarter, but the upswing was a partial bounce-back after an enormous decline and left the economy smaller than it was before the pandemic. The White House took no notice of those glum caveats.

“This record economic growth is absolute validation of President Trump’s policies, which create jobs and opportunities for Americans in every corner of the country,” Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign said in a statement, highlighting a rebound of 33.1 percent at an annualized rate. Mr. Trump heralded the data on Twitter, posting that he was “so glad” that the number had come out before Election Day.

The annualized rate that the White House emphasized extrapolates growth numbers as if the current pace held up for a year, and risks overstating big swings. Because the economy’s growth has been so volatile amid the pandemic, economists have urged focusing on quarterly numbers.

Those showed a 7.4 percent gain in the third quarter. That rebound, by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II, still leaves the economy short of its pre-pandemic levels. The pace of recovery has also slowed, and now coronavirus cases are rising again across much of the United States, raising the prospect of further pullback.

“The recovery is stalling out, thanks to Trump’s refusal to have a serious plan to deal with Covid or to pass a new economic relief plan for workers, small businesses and communities,” Mr. Biden’s campaign said in a release ahead of Thursday’s report. The rebound was widely expected, and the campaign characterized it as “a partial return from a catastrophic hit.”

Economists have warned that the recovery could face serious roadblocks ahead. Temporary measures meant to shore up households and businesses — including unemployment insurance supplements and forgivable loans — have run dry. Swaths of the service sector remain shut down as the virus continues to spread, and job losses that were temporary are increasingly turning permanent.

“With coronavirus infections hitting a record high in recent days and any additional fiscal stimulus unlikely to arrive until, at the earliest, the start of next year, further progress will be much slower,” Paul Ashworth, chief United States economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note following the report.

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Black and Hispanic workers, especially women, lag in the U.S. economic recovery.

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The surge in economic output in the third quarter set a record, but the recovery isn’t reaching everyone.

Economists have long warned that aggregate statistics like gross domestic product can obscure important differences beneath the surface. In the aftermath of the last recession, for example, G.D.P. returned to its previous level in early 2011, even as poverty rates remained high and the unemployment rate for Black Americans was above 15 percent.

Aggregate statistics could be even more misleading during the current crisis. The job losses in the initial months of the pandemic disproportionately struck low-wage service workers, many of them Black and Hispanic women. Service-sector jobs have been slow to return, while school closings are keeping many parents, especially mothers, from returning to work. Nearly half a million Hispanic women have left the labor force over the last three months.

“If we’re thinking that the economy is recovering completely and uniformly, that is simply not the case,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York. “This rebound is unevenly distributed along racial and gender lines.”

The G.D.P. report released Thursday doesn’t break down the data by race, sex or income. But other sources make the disparities clear. A pair of studies by researchers at the Urban Institute released this week found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to have lost jobs or income since March, and were twice as likely as white adults to experience food insecurity in September.

The financial impact of the pandemic hit many of the families that were least able to afford it, even as white-collar workers were largely spared, said Michael Karpman, an Urban Institute researcher and one of the studies’ authors.

“A lot of people who were already in a precarious position before the pandemic are now in worse shape, whereas people who were better off have generally been faring better financially,” he said.

Federal relief programs, such as expanded unemployment benefits, helped offset the damage for many families in the first months of the pandemic. But those programs have mostly ended, and talks to revive them have stalled in Washington. With virus cases surging in much of the country, Mr. Karpman warned, the economic toll could increase.

“There could be a lot more hardship coming up this winter if there’s not more relief from Congress, with the impact falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic workers and their families,” he said.

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Ant Challenged Beijing and Prospered. Now It Toes the Line.

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As Jack Ma of Alibaba helped turn China into the world’s biggest e-commerce market over the past two decades, he was also vowing to pull off a more audacious transformation.

“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks,” he said in 2008, decrying how hard it was for small businesses in China to borrow from government-run lenders.

“The financial industry needs disrupters,” he told People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, a few years later. His goal, he said, was to make banks and other state-owned enterprises “feel unwell.”

The scope of Mr. Ma’s success is becoming clearer. The vehicle for his financial-technology ambitions, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, is preparing for the largest initial public offering on record. Ant is set to raise $34 billion by selling its shares to the public in Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to stock exchange documents released on Monday. After the listing, Ant would be worth around $310 billion, much more than many global banks.

The company is going public not as a scrappy upstart, but as a leviathan deeply dependent on the good will of the government Mr. Ma once relished prodding.

More than 730 million people use Ant’s Alipay app every month to pay for lunch, invest their savings and shop on credit. Yet Alipay’s size and importance have made it an inevitable target for China’s regulators, which have already brought its business to heel in certain areas.

These days, Ant talks mostly about creating partnerships with big banks, not disrupting or supplanting them. Several government-owned funds and institutions are Ant shareholders and stand to profit handsomely from the public offering.

The question now is how much higher Ant can fly without provoking the Chinese authorities into clipping its wings further.

Excitable investors see Ant as a buzzy internet innovator. The risk is that it becomes more like a heavily regulated “financial digital utility,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”

“Utility stocks, as far as I remember, were not the ones to be seen as the most exciting,” Mr. Howie said.

Ant declined to comment, citing the quiet period demanded by regulators before its share sale.

The company has played give-and-take with Beijing for years. As smartphone payments became ubiquitous in China, Ant found itself managing huge piles of money in Alipay users’ virtual wallets. The central bank made it park those funds in special accounts where they would earn minimal interest.

After people piled into an easy-to-use investment fund inside Alipay, the government forced the fund to shed risk and lower returns. Regulators curbed a plan to use Alipay data as the basis for a credit-scoring system akin to Americans’ FICO scores.

China’s Supreme Court this summer capped interest rates for consumer loans, though it was unclear how the ceiling would apply to Ant. The central bank is preparing a new virtual currency that could compete against Alipay and another digital wallet, the messaging app WeChat, as an everyday payment tool.

Ant has learned ways of keeping the authorities on its side. Mr. Ma once boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about never taking money from the Chinese government. Today, funds associated with China’s social security system, its sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned life insurance company and the national postal carrier hold stakes in Ant. The I.P.O. is likely to increase the value of their holdings considerably.

“That’s how the state gets its payoff,” Mr. Howie said. With Ant, he said, “the line between state-owned enterprise and private enterprise is highly, highly blurred.”

China, in less than two generations, went from having a state-planned financial system to being at the global vanguard of internet finance, with trillions of dollars in transactions being made on mobile devices each year. Alipay had a lot to do with it.

Alibaba created the service in the early 2000s to hold payments for online purchases in escrow. Its broader usefulness quickly became clear in a country that mostly missed out on the credit card era. Features were added and users piled in. It became impossible for regulators and banks not to see the app as a threat.

ImageAnt Group’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China.
Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

A big test came when Ant began making an offer to Alipay users: Park your money in a section of the app called Yu’ebao, which means “leftover treasure,” and we will pay you more than the low rates fixed by the government at banks.

People could invest as much or as little as they wanted, making them feel like they were putting their pocket change to use. Yu’ebao was a hit, becoming one of the world’s largest money market funds.

The banks were terrified. One commentator for a state broadcaster called the fund a “vampire” and a “parasite.”

Still, “all the main regulators remained unanimous in saying that this was a positive thing for the Chinese financial system,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“If you can’t actually reform the banks,” Mr. Chorzempa said, “you can inject more competition.”

But then came worries about shadowy, unregulated corners of finance and the dangers they posed to the wider economy. Today, Chinese regulators are tightening supervision of financial holding companies, Ant included. Beijing has kept close watch on the financial instruments that small lenders create out of their consumer loans and sell to investors. Such securities help Ant fund some of its lending. But they also amplify the blowup if too many of those loans aren’t repaid.

“Those kinds of derivative products are something the government is really concerned about,” said Tian X. Hou, founder of the research firm TH Data Capital. Given Ant’s size, she said, “the government should be concerned.”

The broader worry for China is about growing levels of household debt. Beijing wants to cultivate a consumer economy, but excessive borrowing could eventually weigh on people’s spending power. The names of two of Alipay’s popular credit functions, Huabei and Jiebei, are jaunty invitations to spend and borrow.

Huang Ling, 22, started using Huabei when she was in high school. At the time, she didn’t qualify for a credit card. With Huabei’s help, she bought a drone, a scooter, a laptop and more.

The credit line made her feel rich. It also made her realize that if she actually wanted to be rich, she had to get busy.

“Living beyond my means forced me to work harder,” Ms. Huang said.

First, she opened a clothing shop in her hometown, Nanchang, in southeastern China. Then she started an advertising company in the inland metropolis of Chongqing. When the business needed cash, she borrowed from Jiebei.

Online shopping became a way to soothe daily anxieties, and Ms. Huang sometimes racked up thousands of dollars in Huabei bills, which only made her even more anxious. When the pandemic slammed her business, she started falling behind on her payments. That cast her into a deep depression.

Finally, early this month, with her parents’ help, she paid off her debts and closed her Huabei and Jiebei accounts. She felt “elated,” she said.

China’s recent troubles with freewheeling online loan platforms have put the government under pressure to protect ordinary borrowers.

Ant is helped by the fact that its business lines up with many of the Chinese leadership’s priorities: encouraging entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, and expanding the middle class. This year, the company helped the eastern city of Hangzhou, where it is based, set up an early version of the government’s app-based system for dictating coronavirus quarantines.

Such coziness is bound to raise hackles overseas. In Washington, Chinese tech companies that are seen as close to the government are radioactive.

In January 2017, Eric Jing, then Ant’s chief executive, said the company aimed to be serving two billion users worldwide within a decade. Shortly after, Ant announced that it was acquiring the money transfer company MoneyGram to increase its U.S. footprint. By the following January, the deal was dead, thwarted by data security concerns.

More recently, top officials in the Trump administration have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products. Officials from the State Department have suggested that an interagency committee, which also includes officials from the departments of defense, commerce and energy, review Ant for the potential entity listing, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Ant does not talk much anymore about expanding in the United States.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.

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