The Oculus Rift is not a perfect piece of hardware. Like any other first-generation products, it has flaws. The resolution isn’t really high enough. It can get pretty sweaty after an hour or so of use. The weight could probably be better distributed. At the same time, the hardware has definite strong points — the controllers fit beautifully in the hand, battery life is good, tracking is solid, and while the entire setup process could be smoother and easier to navigate, for an early piece of kit it’s a solid one. I’ve been looking forward to the Rift 2, hoping for hardware that would come in below the Rift’s $ 600 launch price with controllers included. There were rumors of a new Rift coming in the not-too-distant future, but that entire project is apparently canceled.
Oculus co-founder Brendan Iribe has departed Facebook after Facebook canceled the upcoming Rift 2, Techcrunch reports. Details on the headset were scarce-to-non-existent, but hoped-for improvements had included a potential wireless add-on like HTC has released, a higher-resolution display (1440p per eye would be a nice bump at minimum), a lighter design with better breathability, and other similar improvements. The new headset wasn’t expected to redefine VR, but enthusiasts were hoping it would polish and improve on the Rift’s strengths, while minimizing some of its weaknesses. According to TC, Iribe and the other FB executives had very different views of what the Rift 2 should be. Iribe reportedly wasn’t interested in a “race to the bottom” for the VR market.
Not a Good Sign
The “race to the bottom” rumor, if true, is particularly troubling in VR. I am a strong proponent of affordable technology and making experiences available at a variety of price points. I have no objection to the development of standalone VR the way Oculus has done, beyond some concerns about fragmenting the market between different VR standards with different levels of compatibility and controller types. But VR needs content that drives a “Wow!” factor. Cheap VR headsets with weak capabilities are a less-compelling feature.
This could be read as a worst-case scenario for the original fans of Oculus Rift that drove the company’s early success. While Palmer Luckey defended the Facebook acquisition as driving Rift’s success in ways that wouldn’t have been otherwise possible (which could still be true), the primary fear of the Rift’s backers was that the company would steer emphasis to places other than the traditional PC ecosystem. Jokes about VR Facebook and privacy concerns aside, Facebook isn’t a PC gaming company or a peripheral manufacturer. It’s not surprising that an expensive peripheral with a high upfront cost and a guaranteed slow adoption ramp didn’t get executives hearts’ soaring, especially not when the Rift lacks for invasive advertising opportunities and refuses to clamp itself to your head until you watch at least six Facebook video ads.
But there is another way to read the situation. Facebook has released a comment stating: “While we can’t comment on our product roadmap specifics, we do have future plans, and can confirm that we are planning for a future version of Rift.” It’s understandable that the company doesn’t have a roadmap in place to talk about just yet, and it’s possible that Iribe was wrong about the kind of headset he wanted to bring to market. Keep in mind that “race to the bottom” could also reflect a desire by Facebook to hit, say, a $ 400 price point with modest improvements, whereas Iribe could’ve been pushing for a more expensive launch target of $ 600 to $ 800, presumably with a larger list of features and more aggressive resolution and performance targets.
It’s also possible that Facebook wants to focus on a cheap Oculus Rift before targeting a more expensive high-end release, like a revamped version of the 1080p headset that would sell for $ 200 to $ 300 as opposed to the current $ 400, possibly by making design changes to reduce the cost. From this angle, the “race to the bottom” is about building out the VR user base. And there really are multiple valid angles from which to see the situation. Is it a better idea to focus on ramping up the number of users with VR, or should the market focus on improving the top-end quality of VR? Obviously, the long-term correct answer is “Both,” but companies have limited numbers of engineers and trying to accomplish both strategies at once could shoot both in the foot.
In the short term, however, this news is unlikely to be well-received. HTC’s Vive Pro is a solid improvement on the original Vive, but the price tag puts the kit outside of most people’s price range (the Vive Pro is $ 800 standalone, $ 1,100 for the kit). But hey, at least you’ve got an opti…
Oh. Presumably, it’ll be back in stock before too long — I was just amused that I went looking for the price and wound up in an out-of-stock scenario.
But seriously, this news leaves HTC Vive as the only PC-focused major company deploying a top-end VR solution, at least for now. And with Oculus at least temporarily out of the game until it figures out a roadmap, assuming one exists, the company isn’t going to have much reason to cut its prices. It wouldn’t be surprising if declining VR sales overall also led to this decision, even though analysts have stated they expect the market to improve after 2018.
Now Read: Oculus Announces New Quest Standalone VR Headset at $ 399, The New Oculus Go Slashes VR’s Entry Price Without Gutting Quality, and VR Market Expected to Improve Despite Sharp Decline in Sales