We're not suggesting that Facebook's efforts to make the Oculus Rift alluring and available to more consumers aren't worthy of appreciation. In the last week (which has coincided with the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco) the company announced a permanent price drop for the Rift headset, its companion Touch controllers and the sensor required for 360° tracking. It also made the hands-down excellent game Robo Recall free for all Touch owners.
That's on top of the fact that Facebook has also funded an extensive amount of VR game and application development, leading to a much more robust library of content than its leading competitor, the HTC Vive.
In fact, we think the HTC Vive has a number of perks over Oculus Rift – most notably, it has superior 360-degree, room-scale tracking – but its somewhat anemic Steam VR library is a major detraction. Without killer software, expensive hardware systems are difficult to justify.
While the Rift's cumulative perks help it stand out against its only true competitor, there's a different kind of rift between Oculus technology as it currently stands and the adoption of virtual reality as a mainstream computing platform, a future that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg envisioned at last October's OC3 conference.
PC reliance is holding VR back
What needs to happen in order for consumer VR to become truly widespread? For now, it seems like the biggest barrier to VR is expense. Even with recent price drops, the Oculus set-up costs US$598 for a Rift and Touch package deal. The optional but recommended third sensor costs $59.
Spending about $660 on a gaming console wouldn't be out of the question for many enthusiasts, but keep in mind that the Rift and Vive are PC-powered headsets. They have to be tethered to a computer to work. And that's not just any computer – you need to have a gaming computer that meets VR standards for processing and rendering power.
Oculus is leading in this area, but only slightly. Last October, Oculus announced "asynchronous spacewarp" (ASW) technology that lowered the minimum specs that computers need in order to be Oculus-ready. If you're trying to get a premium VR experience for the minimum investment, look to the Rift, but the PC will still cost around $500 (and that probably means building your own, as pre-built ASW VR-ready PCs don't yet appear to be on sale.)
The gold standard: A standalone headset
What VR truly needs is a standalone headset that doesn't rely on a gaming PC. If this sounds like wishful thinking, know that this dream isn't completely unfounded. Zuckerberg teased the so-called Santa Cruz prototype at OC3, a standalone headset with inside-out tracking. It appeared wireless, doesn't need a PC, and does not even require sensors placed around the room for room-scale tracking.
It's not difficult to see the benefits of such a device over the current standards. Presuming the headset itself is not prohibitively expensive, removing the PC requirement makes VR more accessible, especially to non-gamers. Being self-contained would presumably mean a less involved purchasing and setup process as well.
Of course, the device is just a prototype that's mostly under wraps, so it could be a long time before it comes to market. If Oculus' long-time stoking of anticipation for Touch controllers serves as any indication, we can expect to see a slew of announcements regarding the new headset well in advance of it ever hitting shelves.
Other areas for improvement
In the meantime, marginal improvements could still go a long way in convincing a wider audience to make the virtual plunge.
For one, we'd like to see PC-powered VR go wireless – nothing spoils immersion like getting tangled in real-life cables. At CES last January, we glimpsed a few wireless adapters from third-party makers that claimed to do the trick, but those solutions were costly and sometimes clunky. We're still waiting for a wireless delivery elegant enough to justify the expense, and we'd prefer the next generation of headsets to be wireless from the start.
VR-induced discomfort and nausea is another pervasive problem, which is largely due to the fixed focus of VR displays. Normally, our eyes only see the area we're looking at in sharp focus, with everything in our peripheral vision blurred into the background. On today's headsets, everything stays in the same sharp focus, which can prompt queasiness and perpetuate a feeling of artificiality. Improved display technology is necessary for comfortable long-term VR.
The other onus of widespread VR adoption falls on developers. VR games are improving in leaps and bounds, spearheaded by Facebook funding. Though there are a number of promising non-gaming VR applications already in use, but most of them have niche uses, such as special interest educational topics, or as a tool for treating specific phobias. Virtual reality experiences need to be better than their conventional counterparts in order to be truly compelling.
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