Public outcry over Oculus Rift price misses the point
The price of being an early adopter is often very literal – you have to pay a premium to be one of the first people in the world to use new devices – sometimes entirely new types of devices. So the huge outcry that followed the announcement of the pre-order price of the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset was something particularly difficult to understand. On Reddit, Oculus founder Palmer Luckey wrote that Oculus isn’t making money on the Rift, to encourage adoption of “high-quality” virtual reality.
Unfortunately, while the Oculus team has done a good job of creating what appears to be, by most accounts, a breakthrough product – our own experience with the Oculus Dev Kit 2 has been overwhelmingly positive – the one area where it didn’t do so well is in his email. When rumors swirled that the Oculus might cost $1,500 (around Rs. 1 lakh), Luckey responded by saying it would be in the $350 (around Rs. 23,000) “ballpark” – so when the final price of $599 (roughly Rs. 23,000) 40,000) was announced in January, many people were predictably outraged.
(Also see: Oculus Rift Preview: Bringing Reality to the Virtual World)
Despite the social media snafus, the Rift appears to be doing better than expected, as pre-order demand has pushed estimated ship dates back to July, nearly six months after initial shipments began in March.
That doesn’t really tell us what the current demand for the Rift is – Oculus hasn’t revealed how many units have been sold for pre-order, perhaps to good effect. Although the Rift was one of the most successful Kickstarter projects at the time, the crowdfunding effort only sold around 7,500 headsets – pretty impressive for an unnamed company with a new category. of products to boot, but if Apple or Samsung were to report similar numbers, we’d probably call the product a disaster.
So what can tell us about this new development? Well, on the one hand, it’s clear that the Rift has been more successful than Oculus expected. With HTC now set to retail its own virtual reality headset, the HTC Vive Pre, which was made in conjunction with gaming giant Valve, there’s no way any responsible company planned to let demand s accumulate for six months. The Vive Pre is likely to be more expensive, but the experience is amazing, and with Valve to fall back on, software discovery and distribution, and game content availability – which most say folks, will be a strong early driver of growth in VR – could give Vive an edge, especially if there are no Rifts available for purchase.
(Also see: HTC Vive first impressions: Oculus Rift serious competition)
The Rift has another major competitor that is also set to launch, the Sony Playstation VR, which was previously known as Project Morpheus. The Playstation VR will work with the Playstation 4 and that means there’s a huge installed base of potential buyers, unlike the Rift or Vive, which will also require people to buy a fairly powerful (and expensive) computer, in addition the price of the helmet.
At the same time, it’s not exactly reasonable to believe that the Oculus Rift – or any of the other headsets, for that matter – is going to do well enough to instantly bring VR to the mainstream, either. In fact, these headsets are just the first step in what will hopefully be a long journey. Thing is, these first-gen headsets will have a limited amount of software available, and they’ll be expensive enough to remain niche as well. The question is whether they will be able to fuel enough demand for virtual reality to make a second and third generation possible. Otherwise, you end up with something like the Apple Newton, instead of the iPhone.
These companies are, however, going to be helped from below through efforts such as Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR. The latter was recently launched in India, priced quite competitively at Rs. 8,200 – it was earlier launched internationally at $99, or around Rs. 6,700. The Gear VR was developed in conjunction with Oculus and differs from Cardboard in several ways. The headset has its own gyroscope and accelerometers, and it works in concert with your phone’s sensors to deliver a smoother, more accurate viewing experience. The headset also comes with a companion app that makes it easy to find VR apps and games. It also comes with a touchpad on the side for a full range of inputs.
(Also see: Preparing for virtual reality)
Cardboard offers an even more stripped-back experience – you’re barely isolated from the outside world, the lenses can’t be adjusted to match your IPD (inter-pupillary distance), and there’s currently even less content available. The view can “drift” when doing something like watching a movie, and there’s only one input button. Despite these shortcomings, the experience can still be very compelling. Take something as simple as photographing and displaying photospheres on Maps. You don’t need to spend a dime on additional gear, and the experience can transport you across the world in seconds. Cardboard Camera is another app that anyone who travels a lot will love – it lets you take 360 degree panoramas in moments, and these are designed to be viewed through cardboard, in 3D. If you think photographing a photosphere takes too long, then this is the perfect compromise.
Apart from that, there are a growing number of free apps available on Google Play that you can also download and start trying out the VR experience. Add to that a cheap and readily available headset, and you start attracting a growing number of people interested in virtual reality. And more and more companies are also interested in the idea. OnePlus held a VR launch for which it distributed cardboard headsets. The Lenovo K4 Note launched with a VR headset that looks like a slightly polished version of Google Cardboard. And moreover, if you bought the headset together with the phone, you only had to pay Rs. 500 extra.
(Also see: Google is taking virtual reality seriously with a new VR division)
At the moment we are also seeing new developments that could significantly improve these helmets. Google’s Project Tango will start rolling out to phones this year; the first devices using this technology are launched in 2016, starting with handsets from Lenovo. The Tango project will enable telemetry in phones; it would allow you to walk around in VR, instead of just looking around like you currently do. It’s a significant step forward, as your experience shifts from a 3D view to a 3D world you can freely explore. And those kinds of experiences will likely remain as economical, if past smartphone developments are any indication.
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As more and more people experience low-end VR, it’s slowly shifting from real science fiction and technology for early adopters to something that would appeal to everyone. Getting people to move from low-end mobile VR to high-end experiences will only require two things – first, showing the difference in quality by getting enough early adopters who would double as evangelists, which seems to be happening produce ; and second, lower prices for VR devices, which will be a function of scale.
That’s why, in the end, the price of the Oculus Rift isn’t an issue. That’s not so high that it will deter early adopters, and the Rift was never intended to be the vehicle for mainstream VR adoption in any case. Google has taken the lead on this front, and if you’ve used Cardboard, you know it does a good job of getting things started.
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