The $599 price tag of the consumer Oculus Rift was off putting to many, including myself. It’s not that we expected the technology to be cheap, more that our expectations were set at what we considered a much more reasonable level. I wrote at the time that HTC and Sony would likely rush in with their own VR headsets swiftly afterwards, likely a much lower price point, to take advantage of the Oculus’ more premium status. I was right on one count, HTC has since announced theirs, but at the higher price point of $799. It seems that, at this stage in the game, there’s no way to do VR on the cheap.
Whilst the two products are largely comparable in terms of raw specifications, having the same screens for each eye and both providing the same level of “sit down” VR experience. However the Vive pulls ahead of the Oculus in two respects, the first of which being the inclusion of two hand tracking controllers. The current version of the Oculus includes an XboxOne controller with their Touch controllers due out sometime later this year (at a currently undisclosed price). However what really sets the HTC Vive apart from the Oculus is the inclusion of two Lighthouse tracking base stations which allow the Vive to do full body tracking in a 16m² space.
These two additions explain the price gap between the two headsets, however it also shows that there’s a floor price when it comes to VR headsets. I had honestly thought that both HTC’s and Sony’s offerings would come in at a cheaper price point than the Oculus however now I’m not so sure. Sony may be able to cut some corners due to the stable hardware platform they’ll be working with (the PS4) however I don’t think that will make it that much cheaper. Indeed looking at the current specs of the PlayStation VR shows that the only real difference at this point is the slightly lower screen resolution (although it does support 120hz, superior to the Oculus and Vive). With that in mind we’d be lucky to see it much, if at all, below the $599 price point that Oculus set last month.
So for Oculus debuting at the price point that they chose might not have been the disaster I first thought it would’ve been. Oculus might very well have developed the Model-T of VR that everyone was hoping for, it just ended up costing a lot more than we’d hoped it would. For many though I still feel like this will mean they’ll give the V1.0 VR products a miss, instead waiting for economies of scale to kick in or a new player to enter the market at a cheaper price point. This will hamper the adoption of VR, and by extension titles developed for VR, in the short term. However after a year or two there’s potential for newer models and the secondary market for used headsets to start ramping up, potentially opening up access to customers who had abstained previously.
For myself I think I’ll have to wait to be convinced that the investment in a VR headset will be worth it. I bought a Xbox just so I could play Mass Effect when it first came out and, should something of similar calibre find itself on any one of the VR platforms, I can see myself doing the same again. However right now the relatively high price point coupled with the lack of enticing titles or killer apps I’m not really willing to make such an investment in a V1.0 product. I, as always, remain willing to have my opinion changed and, by consequence, my wallet opened.
Companies buying other companies is usually nothing to get excited about. Typically it’s a big incumbent player buying up a small company that’s managed to out-innovate them in a particular market segment so instead of losing market share the incumbent chooses to acquire them. Other times it’s done in order to funnel the customer base onto the core product that the incumbent is known for much like Google did with many of its acquisitions like Android. Still every so often a company will seemingly go out of its way to acquire another that honestly doesn’t seem to fit and we’re all left wondering what the hell they’re thinking. Facebook has done this today acquiring the virtual reality pioneer OculusVR.
Facebook and OculusVR could not be more different, one being the biggest social network in the world that’s got 1.23 billion active users per month and the other being a small company with only 50 employees focusing on developing virtual reality technology. Whilst the long winded PR speech from Zuckerberg seems to indicate that they’re somehow invested in making the Oculus Rift the new way of experiencing the world it’s clear that Facebook is going to be running it as it’s own little company, much like Instagram and WhatsApp before it. With the recent rumours of Facebook looking to purchase drone manufacturer Titan Aerospace, another company that doesn’t seem like a good fit for the Facebook brand, it begs the question: what’s Facebook’s plan here?
Most of the previous high profile acquisitions aligned directly with Facebook’s weaknesses, namely how badly they were doing in the mobile space. Instagram fit the bill perfectly in this regard as they managed to grow a massive mobile-only social network that rivalled Facebook’s own mobile client for usage. Whilst many questioned whether paying $1 billion for a company that hadn’t generated a single dollar was worth it for them it seems like Facebook got some value out of it as their mobile experience has improved drastically since then. WhatsApp seemed to be in a similar vein although the high cost of acquisition (even though this one had some revenue to back it up) makes it much more questionable than the Instagram purchase. Still for both of them it was filling in a gap that Facebook had, OculusVR doesn’t do that.
From my perspective it seems like Facebook is looking to diversify its portfolio and the only reason I can think of to justify that is their core business, the Facebook social network, is starting to suffer. I can’t really find any hard evidence to justify this but it does seem like the business community feels that Facebook is starting to lose its younger audience (teens specifically) to messenger apps. Acquiring WhatsApp goes some way to alleviate this but acquiring the most popular app every couple years isn’t a sustainable business model. Instead it looks like they might be looking to recreate the early Google environment, one that spawned multiple other lines of business that weren’t directly related to their core business.
This was definitely a successful model for Google however most of the products and acquisitions they made at a similar stage to Facebook were centred around directing people back to their core products (search and advertising). Most of the moonshot ideas, whilst showing great initial results, have yet to become actual lines of business for them with the two most notable ones, Glass and the self-driving car, still in the developmental or early adopter phase. Facebook’s acquisition of OculusVR doesn’t really fit into this paradigm however with OculusVR likely going to be the first to market with a proper virtual reality headset it might just be a large bet that this market segment will take off.
Honestly it’s hard to see what Facebook’s endgame is here, both for OculusVR and themselves as a company. I think Facebook will stay true to their word about keeping OculusVR independent but I have no clue how they’ll draw on the IP and talent their to better themselves. Suffice to say not everyone is of the same opinion and this is something that Facebook and OculusVR are going to have to manage carefully lest the years of goodwill they’ve built up be dashed in a single movement. I won’t go as far to say that I’m excited to see what these too will do together but I’ll definitely be watching with a keen interest.
Ever since the Nintendo Wii was released back in 2006 there seems to have been a resurgence in non-standard peripherals for consoles although most are simply motion based controllers in a fancy case. The issue with non-standard hardware was, and still is, that game developers can’t rely on a consumer having it and thus many choose to simply not use them. It’s for this (and other) reasons that Donkey Kong 64 had to include the Expansion Pak as their game was inoperable without it and its distribution in the market place could not be relied on. However it seems that manufacturing costs have become cheap enough to make custom peripherals like this viable and thus they have returned in greater numbers than ever before.
The big issue I see with things like this is that once a good idea comes along it’s guaranteed that there will be a lot of copy cat ideas that come out not too long after. In the absence of any interface standards governing their interactions with the consoles this inevitably turns into an arms race of who can win the most support from developers, most often ending in a duopoly of two competing standards that will likely never completely agree with one another. Whilst I’m all for competition in the consumer space I’m also for an open set of standards so that I’m not forced to choose between two functionally equivalent products based on who or what they support.
Which is why Sony’s announcement today of Project Morpheus, their virtual reality headset, is slightly troubling to me.
Since it’s still in the prototype phase details are pretty scant on what its specifications will be but it’s apparently rocking a 1080p display (I’m guessing there’s 2 of them in there) and can apparently do full 360 degree tracking. Predictably the motion tracking relies on the PlayStation Eye accessory indicating that it’s probably got most of the same technology in it that the DualShock4/PlayStation Move controllers do. There doesn’t appear to be any headphones built into it but if it’s got all the same core bits and pieces as a regular PlayStation controller than I’m sure there’ll be a headphone port on it. Essentially it looks like the Oculus Rift did way back when it first debuted on Kickstarter, albeit far more reliant on Sony technology than their product will ever be.
Therein lies the crux of the issue with peripherals of this nature. Sure they add functionality and experiences that would be otherwise impossible to accomplish on the platform by their own but when they’re built like Sony’s, reliant on a whole bunch of things that are only available on that platform, I almost immediately lose interest. As someone who plays across multiple platforms in the space of a year the last thing I want to do is flood my living room with all sorts of one shot peripherals that have no use outside a couple narrow scenarios. Instead I’d prefer one that works across a multitude, something which is technically possible (I won’t tell you how much research I did into finding a cross platform compatible arcade stick for the fighting games I play) but rarely occurs in the wild.
What I’m really getting at here is that whilst I’m super excited for these kinds of virtual reality devices to become commonplace I also want a set of open standards so that when you buy one you’ll be able to use it pretty much everywhere. Oculus Rift has a big head start on everyone in this regard so I really hope that they’ve seen this problem on the horizon and are working towards a solution for it. With something like that in place companies could then focus on making the better headsets rather than trying to coax everyone into their ecosystem. It’s probably a pipe dream, I know, but it would be to the benefit of everyone if it happened.