A Rift in the Community

goes through the looking-glass and finds it’s a bit expensive

Copyright: Oculus

Copyright: Oculus

A fair number of people are heralding 2016 as the year of VR (virtual-reality), and it’s not hard to see why. This year will see the release of three consumer VR headsets, the Oculus Rift, Valve/HTC’s Vive and Sony’s Morpheus. And with the annual Consumer Electronics Show taking place in Las Vegas last week, a glut of new information has entered the market regarding all three of these devices.

Of the three, the Oculus Rift dominated proceedings. Not only did it reveal the most information but it was also available to pre-order by the end of the conference. Many people – including myself – were very excited about this. So at 4pm GMT on the 6th of January, techies around the world took to the internet and let loose a collective “wait, HOW MUCH?!”

As it turns out, pre-ordering the Oculus will set you back £529, significantly more than most speculators were expecting. While no official price had ever been mentioned before, Palmer Luckey, Oculus’ founder, had previously suggested that the Rift’s price would be in the “ballpark” of $350 (£240). This had led many to believe that the price would be lower than its final figure, which was further implied by the Kickstarter responsible for crowd-funding the Rift’s development. There, it was only £300 to buy a development kit, which included a consumer version of the Rift itself as well as various tools to create programs for it.

Mr Luckey has defended the change in price, saying: “I made the infamous ‘roughly in that $350 ballpark, but it will cost more than that’ quote. As an explanation, not an excuse: during that time, many outlets were repeating the ‘Rift is $1,500!’ line, and I was frustrated by how many people thought that was the price of the headset itself. My answer was ill-prepared, and mentally, I was contrasting $349 with $1,500, not our internal estimate that hovered close to $599 — that is why I said it was in roughly the same ballpark.”

But how surprised should we really be at the price change? The Rift, after all, is the first of a new technology. Sporting some very high resolution screens, and top of the line motion-tracking technology, it isn’t exactly a cheap piece of kit to make. The company has already claimed that the profit margins on each sale are relatively small (in fact, Luckey recently claimed on Twitter that the company will “not be making money” on hardware sales).

It’s also worth noting that the Rift is currently sold as a bundle that comes with the headset (including the motion-sensor and relevant cables), along with an Xbox One controller and a couple of Rift-compatible games. In all likelihood, it won’t be too long before you’re able to buy the Rift without all of these bits. However, the impact of this should be minimal: even removing all of the extraneous parts will likely only lower the price of the Rift by around £60.

And even if you can afford a full bundle, you’re not out of the woods yet – actually having it work with your computer requires a top of the range PC. With minimum recommended specs requiring a Nvidia GTX 970 (or equivalent), Intel i5-4590 (or equivalent) and 8GB of RAM, the requirements are well out of reach of an average PC user. Steam’s annual hardware survey recently estimated that, at maximum, only eight per cent of its users will be able to use the Rift on its recommended settings with their current hardware.

Buying an Oculus Rift-ready PC will set you back about £1200. Speaking from experience, I own a higher-end budget PC, and I still needed to spend several hundred pounds to make my PC compatible with the Rift. Many other people are in the same situation.

It’s fairly clear, then, that the Rift is currently out of reach for the average consumer – and, in fact, so is virtual reality in general. That’s not to say that nobody will buy it. With over one million pre-orders in less than twenty-four hours, it seems to have been successful among enthusiasts, but that may well be the entire range of its market.

While details about the Vive and Morpheus are still fairly thin on the ground, it seems like the Oculus will be placed at the higher end of VR technology. The Morpheus in particular shows potential – being aimed for use with the PS4, which has lower specs than an Oculus-compatible PC and more of a consumer audience, it should most likely be cheaper while maintaining an adequate level of graphical quality.

If you like VR, this year will be exciting. With a variety of headsets being released. there will be an explosion of games, apps and stuff we can’t even fathom right now. Trends will be set, new ground broken and fantastic new experiences forged, but most of us won’t be able to experience it. Will 2016 be the year of VR? Maybe, just not for everyone.

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