The Road to VR

My legal team has informed me that I am obligated to use this image when discussing VR.

My legal team has informed me that I am obligated to use this image when discussing VR.

I know I’m harping on this subject, but it seems that this week has seen the confluence of some very interesting, exciting, and disappointing movement in the VR landscape, and since I’d been talking about it earlier in the week, I’d be failing my duties as someone who throws words at the screen if I didn’t keep up with developments and thoughts on the matter.

800 Pound Gorilla

I have to start by talking about the Oculus. It released for pre-order yesterday (Jan 6, 2016), which is an event that the technology world seemed to be waiting for and also not waiting for. I think every technophile wanted the Oculus to finally release an official commercial version, but on the other hand, expectations seem to be tempered by a “chicken and egg” belief that now is not really the time for VR because there’s no content for it (because there’s no commercially available VR to make development of software worthwhile). It’s been a curiosity while in development, and has been a great gadget to marvel over for those who’ve tried it, but it’s always seemed like a point on the horizon that never gets any closer. Having it finally approach was an event mixing excitement and relief that the wait was finally over.

The missing link was the price. Would Oculus be priced at a point that would open the floodgates to commercial VR? Or would this be a niche product that only those who are already sold on the promise of VR would pony up for? It was announced that the device would cost $599. That includes the goggles, sensor for head tracking, an Xbox One controller, and two games that showcase what VR could do. $599 in and of itself is really not a bad price for something like the Oculus, considering that the XB1 controller alone is a good $60 or so, and maybe another $40 for the two games included. But what really kills the deal is the requirements for the PC that’s needed to run it: a high end video card, semi-cutting edge processor, and top-of-the-line ports. My six year old Alienware is still able to run pretty much every game out there without breaking a sweat, but I don’t come anywhere near any of those requirements. A lot of people seem to be in the same boat. I don’t know of anyone who has claimed to have upgraded his or her PC this year according to proposed Oculus specs, meaning that folks who have an upgrade opportunity in their future will either upgrade using the requirements as a guideline, or will push off aiming for those specs until the next, next PC they buy or build.

False Starts and Unforgiving Natures

Folks I’ve heard talk about the Oculus, or VR in general, have apparently already waved off the VR experience as a whole. I think some people still consider it to be a gimmick, some people don’t expect anything better than the lame attempts we had in the 90’s, and some folks just can’t or won’t bother using stupid looking and heavy VR goggles that interfere with what’s supposed to be a pleasant, relaxing hobby.

The Oculus was, if I remember correctly, the first of the latest generation of VR setups, and the benefit (or curse) of being the first of an exotic batch is that it becomes the leader, the poster-child, and the avatar for the success or failure of the genre as a whole. I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who nailed the coffin shut when they heard the outrageous specs and expensive price tag of the Oculus and declared (to themselves, or more than likely to the rest of the Internet) that VR was officially dead because while there was now a production model on the way, it would be so out of reach of the masses to make it almost like it never existed at all. I’m sure a lot of people had dreams that the Oculus would run on their rig, and would be reasonably priced in order to sell millions and make VR a reality. The actual reality is that it puts VR out of the reach of pretty much anyone who wasn’t chomping at the bit to get one, and that can be extremely disheartening to feel let down like that. Folks around here have very long memories and are adept at carrying grudges for the sake of carrying grudges. I expect a lot of people are just going to slink away and be content with monitors and TV sets for the foreseeable future.

Momentum of the Also-Rans

The silver lining of this is that now that the Oculus has been “released”, it serves as the benchmark for what comes next, both in terms of technical performance and public perception. For example, I don’t have any illusions that my ghetto VR project is going to outpace the Oculus in any category; my hope is that it’s “good enough” to whet my appetite for future technology now that I know the Oculus isn’t going to fill that role any time soon. Other offerings such as the HTC Vive — which based on what I’ve been seeing has become the new superstar people are pinning their hopes on — still have time to position themselves in relation to the Oculus, and I’m certain they’re doing that right now by studying the reactions to the price and the specs and how people feel about them. Since people have pretty much shrugged with a mix of disdain and sadness post-Wednesday, that means that anyone can swoop in a save the day with the proper mix of tech and price. I think VR is something people want, if for no other reason than it fills the latent role of the latest cool technology gadget that everyone’s talking about, so while the Oculus’ release situation may have put the damper on people’s enthusiasm for the technology, I believe that up-and-coming competitors can use this lull to position themselves as the technology that people have been waiting for.

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4 Responses to “The Road to VR”

  1. Pete S says:

    So a couple of thoughts. First, I still think we’re going to see the rebirth of “the Internet Cafe” as “the VR Cafe.” So maybe a $600 Rift and high-end PC is out of reach, but what about instead of going to shoot pool or go bowling this weekend, we head to the VR Cafe for some gaming with state of the art VR hardware? I think there’s a possibility there.

    The biggest issue I see with the Vive is that you need to more or less devote a room to it to get the full experience. So again, it’s expensive and now you need to also build an expansion to your house for it. 🙂

    I actually think the limited software and the high price might work well together. Few people will buy a Rift on impulse. The people who do buy them will know what they’re getting into, so they won’t be surprised by the thin software library. But they’ll build a small, probably devoted audience for the developers crafting VR experiences, giving them a reason to stay in the VR genre.

    Then when the Rift 2 comes out for $400 there’ll be a library ready for the bigger audience. And by the time Rift 3 ships at $200 there’ll be a robust library to go along with the impulse purchases.

    I don’t really have a horse in this race so I’m just speculating. I feel really paranoid wearing headphones because I’m afraid a serial killer will break into my house and sneak up behind me and I won’t hear him. I suspect a full visor would throw me into a panic attack. I’d be tense and just WAITING for something to grab me. So VR is probably not for me no matter the cost.

    Hey, even paranoids have enemies…

    • Scopique says:

      One thing I was wondering after I wrote this was “are we going to be able to GET to Oculus 2 and Oculus 3”, or will things just pan out so that the tech is more than people are willing to pay and the software never breaks out to drive hardware adoption?

      I had been willing to pay for the GearVR, but afterwards I was kind of glad I didn’t spend the $99. Right now I’m even wondering if the $30 I paid for the knockoff will be money well spent, and if so, for how long? I really would like VR to pan out, to be widely available, and for it take off, but is it just a niche thing that will relegate it to specialty uses like cafes and tech show demos because of it’s price, software, and any subsequent malaise?

      • Pete S says:

        I think it would be in danger if Facebook hadn’t purchased Oculus. But Zuckerburg’s apparent dream of me putting on an Oculus and going to my high school reunion virtually via Facebook VR means I think the company will keep driving the product and as the price falls it’ll start to catch on. But maybe I’m too optimistic.

What do you think?