The Oculus Rift celebrated its one-year anniversary on March 28, 2016. Happy birthday, Oculus, your growing pains are showing.
But the awkward baby steps towards making virtual reality mainstream have not been with without some wins.
After years of hype beginning in 2012, and clunky developer prototypes. They finally made it to the consumer version, the attractively designed Oculus Rift still required a relatively expensive PC and a Xbox controller to run the limited software available for the device. Predictably, that means only the most enthusiastic consumer bought the long awaited consumer ready VR. Which doesn’t sounds quite screamed mainstream.
Despite all hurdles, Oculus is gradually gaining a loyal consumer base.
The main question is, can it expand that dedicated early adopter enthusiastic consumer base to the mainstream? Let’s take a look at the last 12 month of Oculus’ virtual reality. So we can take a better shot at when the future of VR will really be here.
The missing links
For a while, despite its attractive design, it seemed like the Rift will remain with hobbyists only. That is, until the release of Oculus Touch. The beauty was in its designer controllers, that didn’t reached the consumers until December of 2016. Though, by that time, Oculus lost the momentum gained from the Rift’s release.
On the plus side, the ability of touch controllers to deliver a more elegant solution to hand presence in VR sparked new interest, particularly among the users who already purchased the Rift earlier in the year. (And compared to the clunky magic wands introduced by the HTC Vive and PlayStation VR, Touch was much better.)
Where the Rift’s users have to be familiar with Xbox controllers in order to use the early Rift apps. Forcing users into an awkward hybrid interface that still had one foot in console gaming. Touch provided a completely native interface to VR. One step forwards towards making it mainstream.
The Touch arrived late to the game, but the wait was worth it. Along with the Touch, Oculus introduced Avatars, customizable virtual faces and hands that took VR immersion to the next level. Now more users can related to it than before.
Win: Getting away from Xbox, introducing responsive avatars. Making it more familiar to non-gaming consumer base.
Loss: Waiting too long to drop Rift + Touch price from $800 to $600 to undercut the $800 HTC Vive.
The identity crisis
This is Oculus’ biggest problem is confusing the consumer.
Samsung’s Gear VR, the mobile VR headset that requires a Samsung smartphone to work, has thrived thanks in part of its partnership with Oculus. In fact, if you compare the first year of iPhone in 2007, which got roughly 6 million in sales, you could argue the the Gear VR is on a comparable trajectory, with 5 million Gear VR devices sold so far, according to Samsung
But despite those strong numbers, it’s still uncommon to see someone at an airport or café using the mobile VR devices. Sure, the past holiday seasons, we got lots of videos of people enjoying Oculus Rift and Gear VR devices. But in general, adoption of VR headsets appears to be slow among mainstream consumers.
Part of the problem stems from Oculus’ bifocal approach to the consumer market. Simultaneously trying to sell the public a top-of-the-line VR device (Rift) that requires close to $2,000 investment. Versus the mere few hundred dollars needed to get the Gear VR and a Samsung smartphone is a recipe for great confusion. The VR market is too underdeveloped at this point. Thus, confusing the customers with two devices that appears to do the same thing but are vastly different in price and performance.
Furthermore, the idea of using a cheaper, less immersive VR as a gateway drug to get customers to spend money on higher-end, more expensive VR. Well, it’s not methenphedamine and the one making it is not Heisenberg. Oculus is shooting itself in the virtual foot in an effort to serve to two disparate markets (mobile and desktop) at once hasn’t proven viable.
Nevertheless, in the past year, in the rush to gain mobile app profits and scale. Developers targeting Oculus users have often opted to release VR solely for the Gear VR, completely skipping Rift users altogether. The result? A wide array of Gear VR apps (films, live streaming events) from high profile brands, all unavailable to the most passionate VR users who sit with nothing but their expensive Rift devices.
It’s telling that on Reddit the biggest VR-related device subreddit subscriber base is Oculus at around 80,000, followed by Vive at around 70,000 with the Gear VR far behind at around 23,000 (Google’s Daydream subreddit has about 7,500 registered user). High quality, free Rift games like Robo Recall help drive Rift interest, but too often Gear VR seem to get priority from developers. As they get deflected by the illusion of high number of Samsung phone users compared to the Rift users, totally forgetting loyalty of Rift users is way more than the Gear VR users.
Win: Locking the world’s leading mobile phone-brand, Samsung, to the Oculus VR platform.
Loss: Confusing consumers with mobile VR, not neglecting passionate Rift users.
The bad looks
Amid all hardware and software concerns. Oculus also found itself fighting for its very life in the court, ultimately losing a multi-million dollar lawsuit in February. Although the judgment cleared Oculus of the most serious allegations in the lawsuit related to the code behind the Oculus Rift system. It came not long after it was reported that company founder Palmer Luckey was linked to a pro-Trump political action group. (Luckey later refuted some of the claims).
Some of the bad mojo started when Facebook acquired Oculus back in 2014, leading to an immediate outcry from early Oculus supporters who backed the VR device on Kickstarter.
For some, the idea of adopting Oculus means (ultimately) buying into Facebook – which is a virtual bridge too far for some early adopters.
But whether you like Facebook or not, Mark Zuckerberg’s decision to snap up Oculus may have been the best thing happened to VR. His commitment to the platform, backed by billions of dollars (and users), means that VR won’t just be the domain of gaming brands and movie studios. Giving it a higher chance to connect to the mainstream users as part of the vast social network ecosystem.
The good news? While waging a major court battle, Oculus Story Studio won an Emmy for the VR experience Henry and its Dear Angelica short debuted at Sundance.
Win: Despite exec shakeups, legal battles and doubters, Oculus remained focused on pushing out new titles, partnerships and product improvements.
Loss: The legal issues aren’t over, bad press still haunts Oculus.
So will Oculus be the engine behind VR’s first mainstream success? We’ll probably know in next couple of years. If VR is indeed “the next major computing platform” as Zuckerberg calls it, like the web, we can’t expect it to happen overnight.
But when it does happen, the Oculus Rift will, without a doubt, be the major contributor. Till then we’ll continue to cover and analyse updates in this field.