Company / division: Oculus
Facebook’s Oculus today held its fourth developer event, Oculus Connect, and the biggest announcements revolved around standalone headsets. First, Oculus will launch the Oculus Go, a mobile-grade standalone VR unit, at $199 early next year; secondly, the company has made significant progress on its Santa Cruz project, which will result in a standalone PC-grade headset at a later date. The Oculus Go is a pretty compelling new entrant in the market, a competitor of sorts to Samsung’s Oculus-based Gear VR but without requiring a compatible smartphone, and with some feature benefits too. It’s more expensive than Gear VR and Google’s Daydream View, but still fairly reasonably priced. Santa Cruz will offer inside-out tracking and six degrees of freedom, meaning that it will allow a full range of motion and room and object detection without requiring external sensors to be installed in a room as the HTC Vive does. There’s no detail on pricing or exact availability for that product, but it sounds like it’ll be at least late next year before that’s out. With both products, Oculus reduces its dependence on partners – Samsung in mobile and PC for the Rift – over the long term, which is likely to push them further into the arms of other VR platforms, including Daydream in the case of Samsung and Microsoft’s Windows-based Mixed Reality VR platform in the case of PC OEMs.
On that latter point, though, another big announcement Oculus made today was making permanent the temporary $399 summer price point for the Oculus Rift bundle including controllers, something that’s seemed increasingly inevitable as Oculus extended the price promotion. As I pointed out in this piece I wrote for Techpinions a while back, that price point and similar pricing moves from HTC and Sony are making the opportunity Microsoft originally targeted for its VR partners disappear. It’s going to be very tough to sell a basic PC VR headset against the Oculus Rift bundle at the same price point.
The other announcements made largely relate to different bundles and new software. Oculus is updating its platform for the Rift, introducing some new experiences including a virtual desktop environment along the same lines as Microsoft’s recent announcements – something I’m still not convinced most people want from VR – as well as more social and entertainment experiences. It’s also creating a business bundle for Oculus designed for companies that want to deploy Rift and Rift-based experiences, which will come with a premium tier of support over and above a set of hardware.
The big new goal Facebook and Oculus announced at today’s event is getting 1 billion people into VR, something that’s miles away from today’s numbers, which are likely closer to one hundredth of that number. Certainly, bringing the price points down is part of getting there, as is creating experiences beyond hardcore gaming, but it really doesn’t feel like there’s much there yet, which may be OK because Facebook doesn’t seem to have put a timeline on that goal, which therefore remains more aspirational than concrete.
Oculus founder Palmer Luckey is leaving Facebook – Recode (Mar 30, 2017)
This isn’t a huge surprise – Luckey has been very quiet at Facebook over the past year or so, and especially since he was in the news a while back for allegedly funding and/or creating some political material during last year’s presidential election. It’s also important to note that he hasn’t had a clear managerial role at Facebook/Oculus since he arrived there, with others taking on the day to day responsibility for moving the product forward. So in some ways his departure is probably a good thing for Facebook, which has seemed reticent to associate itself directly with him in recent months.
Oculus Drops Price of Rift and Controllers by $100 Each (Mar 1, 2017)
I’ve just had a little debate with myself (and with some others on Twitter) as to which site to link to for this news – lots provided essentially the same information in my Twitter feed at roughly the same time, and I was left with a choice of a site with a paywall, a site with egregious auto play videos, or a site with more superficial coverage. The news itself is interesting – Facebook/Oculus is reducing the price of both the Rift and the controller by $100 each for a total discount of $200 and a new combined price of $598, which puts it below the price for the $799 HTC Vive, but above the $399 price of the Playstation VR. The combined price of a console or PC plus headset is still lowest for Playstation by quite a distance, helping explain why the latter is selling so well, especially with a large installed base of consoles. Oculus insists it’s not reducing the price because of poor sales, and it’s been saying for months Oculus sales wouldn’t be material to Facebook’s overall business for years, so there’s some credibility to its claim that it’s just executing on a longer-term plan here. Even Sony’s nearly 1 million sales are still very small in the context of any other mainstream consumer electronics category, which is a useful reminder of VR’s relative immaturity. But lower prices will help accelerate things a bit, as well installment plans like the one HTC announced this week.
Facebook closing 200 Oculus VR Best Buy pop-ups due to poor store performance – Business Insider (Feb 8, 2017)
One of the biggest challenges VR faces at this point is suggestions that it’s somehow failing to take off despite a big push into the mainstream, and that’s a narrative Business Insider has pushed before. This is where narratives are dangerous – the fact here is that VR is that VR is still in its infancy as a mainstream technology – other than the mobile flavors, it’s expensive, requires other expensive hardware, and there’s not a ton of content there beyond gaming. But if the narrative instead becomes that it’s fizzling as it attempts to break into the mainstream, that is a lot more damaging than merely talking about a technology that has small but growing adoption. VR can, however, already be fairly compelling as a demo, which is why it’s a blow that Facebook is closing these Oculus demo stations, because VR is really impossible to grok without trying it in person. But those trying to sell VR have to be very careful not to oversell it to mainstream users – it still has quite a long way to go before it crosses the chasm, and making it seem bigger than it is feeds this dangerous narrative.
via Business Insider
Facebook has hired former Xiaomi and Google exec Hugo Barra as its new virtual reality chief – Recode (Jan 26, 2017)
Earlier this week, Hugo Barra announced that he was leaving Xiaomi, and now the other shoe has dropped – he’ll be taking over as head of VR at Facebook. It looks like that will make him effectively CEO of Oculus, though I wonder whether he’ll also be responsible for some of the less platform-specific stuff Facebook is working on, like taking Facebook’s social experiences into VR (Mark Zuckerberg’s post about the news features a picture of him and Barra – still in China – together in such a VR environment). Facebook certainly wants to have a major stake in the next user interface, and sees that as VR, but also seems realistic about the fact that no one platform – Oculus or otherwise – will have a dominant role there, and so it needs to evolve Facebook for VR in a way that works on lots of different systems. Whether or not Barra will run this broader set of VR activities at Facebook, hiring him is a big coup for the company – he’s a well-known and well-respected name, especially among developers.
What happened to virtual reality? – Business Insider (Jan 21, 2017)
This piece argues that VR is currently underperforming expectations, and hasn’t panned out the way many of its proponents hoped. In reality (no pun intended), I think most of the companies have been pretty realistic about the prospects for the current generation of VR technology – Facebook in particular has said it doesn’t expect Oculus sales to be material to its overall financial picture, for example. So this is as much about inflated expectations around VR that came from others – observers, proponents, fans – than from the companies themselves. But in some ways that doesn’t matter – the narrative was that VR was finally here and going mainstream, and now it’s becoming that VR is falling short of expectations. The first was misguided, and now the second flows from those misguided expectations rather than from actual performance in the market. VR is still at a very early stage, and though Samsung has sold 5 million mobile VR headsets, it’s mostly still a niche proposition today, limited largely to the hardcore gaming market. It’ll take both technological advances and much more compelling content to appeal to non-gamers.
Further confirmation that Facebook and its Oculus subsidiary are serious about advancing their VR technology. VR is finally starting to hit the mainstream, but there are still lots of areas where the technology can improve.