Ever since Oculus launched, there have been concerns that the technology’s price would be a fundamental barrier to adoption. But prices have come down dramatically in the last few years, without a corresponding jump in adoption rates. VR shipments in 2018 have been downright bad, with Oculus focused more on building standalone experiences as opposed to coming up with a second-generation PC headset.
Over at his blog, Oculus co-founder Palmer Luckey argues that this focus on pricing is misplaced. He writes:
No existing or imminent VR hardware is good enough to go truly mainstream, even at a price of $ 0.00. You could give a Rift+PC to every single person in the developed world for free, and the vast majority would cease to use it in a matter of weeks or months. I know this from seeing the results of large scale real-world market testing, not just my own imagination – hardcore gamers and technology enthusiasts are entranced by the VR of today, as am I, but stickiness drops off steeply outside of that core demographic. Free is still not cheap enough for most people, because cost is not what holds them back actively or passively.
The Oculus Rift and Steam VR setup process are miserable and miserably complicated. Camera calibration and location is critical — if you don’t stand in the right place, your movements may take the controllers outside what the cameras can “see.” You can absolutely use an Oculus Rift in Steam VR (I do), but you’d better watch what buttons you press — some of them will drop you into the Oculus Store, while others pull up Steam’s menu systems. Cable management is annoying. Having to take the headset off and wipe down the lenses and one’s face is really annoying, and the sweat build-up makes sharing the hardware kind of gross for both parties. This is especially an issue in a game like Beat Saber. Accidentally stepping on the silent, treacherous cat hiding just behind you is both annoying and may lead to stitches.
And yet, here’s the thing: I really like VR! I like it enough that I put up with all of the above on a weekly basis to have some fun. But it’s not easy to get into or to stay into. According to Luckey, it’s not the price of VR that’s holding people back from adopting it, at least not as such. It’s the quality of the experience.
Now that I’ve actually spent time futzing with VR and trying to get it working in a variety of situations, I couldn’t agree more. The question is, however, is anybody actually focused on trying to fix that problem? It’s not clear they are. Oculus just killed the second-generation PC Rift. The standalone headsets we’ve seen are compromised to one degree or another. HTC is the only company that’s invested in building a better second-generation headset, and the price they’ve slapped on it is ludicrous. Iribe supposedly left Facebook because he was not interested in “offering compromised experiences that provided short-term user growth but sacrificed on comfort and performance.”
Blowing up short-term growth might move boxes, but it won’t reshape gaming. Just ask Microsoft, whose Kinect might be the most-purchased gaming “failure” in history. Microsoft sold at least 35 million Kinects. If the Kinect had been a console, it would have outsold the Nintendo 64, Sega Genesis, Atari 2600, original Xbox, GameCube, Switch (to-date), PlayStation Vita, and the Wii U based on data from VG Chartz. Each of these consoles made its own contributions to video gaming with its own great titles. Project Natal… kind of existed.
I’m not as optimistic as Luckey. He thinks True Believers will still save things, in the long run. I think it’s entirely possible VR follows 3-D into yet another boom-and-bust cycle, to be dug out 30 years from now and once again hyped as the Next Big Thing.