Oculus Rift may have become the household name in virtual reality headsets after its crowdfunding campaign raised $2.4 million on Kickstarter and Facebook acquired the company for $2 billion, but it may not be the first one to make it to consumers’ households.
The company announced Wednesday that it will begin shipping its headset to the public in the first quarter of 2016. Before that, Microsoft may release its augmented reality goggles, HoloLens. The release of Sony’s Morpheus and HTC’s Vive is expected by early 2016. But video game developers and consultants said they aren’t surprised by the delay of Oculus, nor do they think Facebook will have trouble capturing the market.
“It’s coming? Yes!” Amy Robinson shouted on the startup presentation floor at New York’s TechCrunch Disrupt conference after hearing the Oculus news. The self-professed virtual-reality-obsessed developer is the executive director of EyeWire, a Boston company previously out of the MIT Media Lab that is creating a virtual map of the brain. “Originally, we wanted to work with [video game system] Microsoft Kinect, but when I tried Oculus, I knew this would be perfect,” Robinson said.
Robinson had first met the creators of Oculus at a TED [Technology, Entertainment and Design] conference, before Facebook bought the company, and was granted access to the developer kit. Since then, her team has used the headsets to build a virtual game around their brain map. With a Rift, a PC and an Xbox controller, anyone can navigate through virtual neurons. Now, with a consumer version of Oculus on the way, more people can experience her work.
Its developers, like Robinson, and eager early adopters will latch onto Oculus, no matter the wait or competition, said Andre Vrignaud, chief consultant at AV Digital Consulting and former strategist at Amazon, Microsoft and Intel. “You’re going to get a bunch of early adopters, a bunch of people who are excited about the concept, but the reviews are going to be similar to those about the Apple Watch, that you should wait until the next version, and Facebook is absolutely aware of that,” Vrignaud said.
“Oculus Rift is as close to a VR household name as there is currently, so Facebook may be justified in thinking consumers will wait for them,” Adrian Crook, managing director of AC+A mobile game design consultants, wrote in an email.
An early 2016 release means that the product will miss the holiday season, but Crook said that waiting until after a season crowded with new gadgets will be advantageous to marketers. Speaking at TechCrunch Disrupt Wednesday, Oculus co-founder and Vice President of Product Nate Mitchell provided an economic argument to the wait.
Making It Affordable
“One big thing for us is to make it affordable,” Mitchell said. “VR is so new. It’s just like the dawn of any new platform or technology. Right now, because there is custom hardware involved, costs are relatively high and scale is low.”
Mitchell declined to provide a price for the consumer product. Developer kits sell for $350. Specifications on the hardware will also be announced in the next few weeks. Mitchell did confirm that the consumer product will be tethered to a gaming PC or a console system. External controllers will also be needed for some virtual experiences.
Oculus’ delay may offer time to experiment with what competitors have added. For example, Valve is able to detect and track a user’s position with gloves and other sensors. “I would not be at all be surprised if they were trying to match Vive’s features,” Vrignaud said.
Microsoft’s HoloLens, which was available for testing at last week’s developers conference, is on another spectrum. While Oculus and Valve provide an immersive virtual reality experience, HoloLens is an augmented reality with graphics overlaid on surroundings. “It's not going to provide the experience that the dedicated VR hardware will because it will never be designed for it or priced for it,” Brad Carr, a technology specialist at Feedback Agency, wrote in an email.
As Oculus works to perfect its systems, developers and in-house designers also have been creating games for the product. “The delay is likely as much about software as it is about hardware," Crook wrote. "An extra quarter can mean the difference between a rushed game and a polished one.”
The presentation of HoloLens included a demo of popular game "Minecraft." Microsoft had acquired the studio behind the game, Mojang, last year. Oculus’ Mitchell would not directly answer whether the company had hired additional game developers or acquired other companies, but he did say many on the team come from the game development industry.
Oculus released its first in-house title, "Hero Bound," last year and will continue to release more games. In addition to different technical specs, the game offerings will serve to differentiate the competitive products. “It’s not just the specs but the content you can view. You can compare it to all the streaming options. HBO has these shows. Netflix has others. Only thing people care about now is what shows can I see. That’s what the VR guys are doing,” Vrignaud said.
Oculus already has its own online store, similar to Apple’s app store, where developers can add their own games. But as more virtual reality headsets enter the consumer market and the experiences become popularized, gaming studios will add their own products, perhaps catering to only one system. “Developers and publishers to make software available for the headsets might not be difficult,” Carr wrote. “But getting top-tier studios like Activision or Electronic Arts to come on board is an entirely different story.”
However, video games are just one feature of what these new systems can provide. “I’m equally if not more impressed by the experience of being able to jump into a National Geographic special,” Robinson said.
Beyond its own games and other experiences, Facebook could stand out in the social element it brings to virtual reality. That includes average consumers' being able to create and share their own experiences. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said during March’s F8 developers conference that the company is researching spherical videos. Another element is being able to interact with others during a virtual reality viewing.
“If there’s one company that might want to try to address the social issue of virtual reality, maybe it’s Facebook," Vrignaud said. "But there’s much more than just having access to a friend's list -- there’s much more technology involved.”