The Oculus Rift VR headset has been steadily dropping in price: The Rift plus Touch controllers were $800 at the beginning of the year, then dropped to $600, and are now $400 for the next six weeks. So news from Bloomberg that Oculus is reportedly working on a new VR headset shouldn’t come as a huge surprise.
Per Bloomberg, speaking to sources within the company, Oculus will put out a wireless VR headset that won’t require a PC or a mobile phone to run, and will cost just $200. The new headset should hit the market in early 2018.
The headset seems to be an attempt to simplify (and perhaps supplant) Samsung’s Gear VR headset, currently the market leader (and which uses Oculus technology and the Oculus storefront to sell games). To get the $130 Gear VR headset working, you need one of the newer Samsung Galaxy phones. Especially in the American market, where the higher-end of tech consumers remain solidly split between Samsung and iPhone users, this means many potential customers simply can’t get in on one of the cheaper ways to experience VR.
The new headset would solve that, replicating the experience of the Gear VR (including its Wii-like handheld controller) for $200, no phone required. However, this also means that it comes with the current limitations of smartphone-based VR: The headset won’t be able to track your body’s position, only where your head is pointed. It’s fine if you’re sitting down and staying relatively still, but if you move your body around much, even just leaning side to side or craning your neck forward, it can create an odd, head-on-a-stick feeling that breaks immersion. Lack of positional tracking also makes things like room-scale VR (i.e, the ability to walk around) impossible.
Oculus has been at work for a while on a prototype known as Santa Cruz, which would be a wireless version of the current Oculus Rift PC headset and could potentially eliminate the need for a PC altogether. But details remain scarce, and there’s no word when that would hit the market — or at what price point.
The first generation of VR headsets have mainly failed to break through to any sort of mass market. Even Samsung’s Gear VR remains a relatively niche device, the PSVR is selling above expectations, but still sees a relatively small install base. Meanwhile, both the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive haven’t seen wide adoption in the PC-gaming market, a crowd that is usually much less price-sensitive than average consumers.
Part of this is that the games simply aren’t there. It’s a bit of a chicken-and-the-egg problem. Major developers, absent subsidies from hardware developers, don’t want to invest resources into full-fledged games that they can only sell to a relatively small market. But that market won’t grow until there are full-fledged games available for it.
But the other part is that VR, as it exists now, remains a hassle. Wired headsets attached to PCs or PlayStations require either a fair amount of living-room space dedicated to VR, or a lot of setup and teardown each time you want to use a VR headset. Smartphone VR headsets like the Gear VR or Google’s Daydream are relatively easier, but still suffer from being uncomfortable and underpowered. If Oculus can figure out a way to make a headset that’s easy to slip on, feels full-featured, and falls into the price range of “impulse tech purchase” versus “one month’s rent,” it could find a way to break into the mass market.
Update, 1:37 p.m.: We got the following from a spokesperson for Oculus: “We don’t have a product to unveil at this time, however we can confirm that we’re making several significant technology investments in the standalone VR category. This is in addition to our commitment to high-end VR products like Oculus Rift and mobile phone products like Gear VR.”