The harsh reality of the cost of virtual reality

The first week of January has been filled with news and announcements from the two companies currently battling for my virtual reality enthusiast heart and money.

On Monday, Oculus announced that they would be opening up pre-orders for their Oculus Rift consumer edition on Wednesday morning at 8AM Pacific. Based on the great experience I have had with the Gear VR and how it has helped me to understand what makes an end user have presence in VR, I was a bit conflicted about whether I should pre-order the headset.

When I had an epic whirlwind VR excursion last July and tried out the HTC Vive for the first time, it felt like I was entering a new world. Tilt Brush showed me what actual depth felt like and I didn’t want to turn back. It was the beginning of me upgrading from being a “Google Cardboard is a fun toy to play with” guy to a “Virtual Reality has a big part in my future” guy.

After trying out the Oculus Rift consumer version at PAX, I couldn’t help but notice how the headsets were almost identical in functionality but what set the Vive apart where the interactions and the controllers.

HTC and Valve ran into some hiccups from a marketing perspective in Q4. Based on internet speculation alone, it felt like they had entered into a downward spiral that may have resulted in no consumer launch for their Vive product.

In December, they announced a delay from “by the end of the year 2015” to “Q2 2016.” The internet speculated that due to the financial instability of HTC, that may mean no launch or a super inflated price point.

Later in the month, at their first developer conference, HTC unveiled the VivePort, a DRM-laced storefront for Vive programs. My heart sank a little. I’m not a fan of digital rights management. I also noticed a shortage of Valve content in the marketing material that I had access to. Was HTC moving away from Steam and Valve?

So, on Tuesday, when Oculus announced that they would give away free headsets to the 7,000 people that backed their first Developer Kit on Kickstarter, I was starting to ride the euphoria. I reached out to a friend I knew had backed the campaign and was almost convinced that I should pre-order the Rift and abandon hope for the better experience I had previously had with the Vive.

My wife and I talked it over Tuesday night and concluded there was still no reason for me to pre-order. While the Vive has Tilt Brush, Aperture Science, Job Simulator, Call of the Starseed and more coming to it when it hypothetically launches, the only product I could think of that would make me choose the Rift over the Vive was Rock Band VR. Rock Band VR can’t ship until at least the second half of the year after Oculus releases their Touch controllers. There’s just not enough that I can’t already get on my Gear VR to merit getting the Rift *right now*.

On Wednesday morning, after reading that the pre-order was really just to lock in a ship date and you weren’t being held to any particular obligation, no credit card holds would be applied and you could cancel at any time, I actually got my credit card out.

I went to the Oculus site and watched the countdown clock slowly tick down to zero and clicked the pre-order link.

The first thing I saw was a bright white screen. Folks like me that were attempting to pre-order called it the white screen of death.

After a few minutes I saw something almost as bad.

It is best illustrated in this .gif image.

tsj7pqy2b-2bimgur

$599.

The cost of upgrading my existing desktop PC alone is going to be around $500 because I’d need a new graphics card and a USB 3.0 PCI-E card. Adding a $600 headset to that cost, one that I really don’t have a killer app for at that, it was out of the question.

It just illustrated the one thing riding the VR euphoria hype train didn’t account for. The true cost.

Thinking about it, a good OLED screen cell phone, like the one I use in the Note 4 with my Gear VR, retails for around $600. Everyone thought the Rift would be around $350 because their last developer kit was around that price. No one expected the retail cost would be nearly double after you figure in tax and shipping and handling.

But the cost of the components, most of which are custom made for Oculus, even when subsidized by Facebook and other partners, is high. Higher than I can justify the impulse buy of.

Where my heart sank the most was realizing this first price point introduced may impact the prices of all future virtual reality devices. That $599 would justify an even higher price point for competing “premium” headsets like the Vive.

Oculus founder Palmer Luckey spent the majority of Wednesday evening answering to the pitchfork mobs on Reddit. I appreciate his professional and honest responses. It didn’t change the fact that I thought the Rift was a bit too expensive for me to afford.

Today, Norm Chan from Tested posted an excellent video with interviews, a bit of hands-on footage and his review of the Vive Pre, the second developer kit from HTC and Valve. His opinion that the second developer kit seems like a questionable move for HTC was nicely counterbalanced by the enthusiasm of the developers he interviewed. I can’t really gain much from the marketing rep’s interview responses but it was reassuring to see that the Vive I knew and loved six months ago hasn’t really changed much and certainly not for the worse as those on the internet had speculated.

The Vive is expected to be open for pre-orders next month, shipping in April. In the end, the Rift minus its Touch controllers, is shipping as early as March 28 but pre-orders are booked through June already at the time I write this post. There’s a strong likelihood that the platform I liked better and left me with a better impression may ship at the same time or reach consumers even faster than the one I was considering “settling” for.

There’s no word on a price point yet for the Vive. I know now that in addition to a minimum of a $500 PC upgrade, the minimum I should expect to pay for a consumer VR headset would be $600, but I should prepare myself for a cost significantly higher. It helps with figuring out what to budget.

For now, I’ve got a great VR headset already. It may not have the gleam and shine of the PC based headsets, but the Gear VR is the next best thing and currently the only game in town for low persistance VR. I’ve spent ~$50 on content plus loaded tons of free content on the Gear VR and love the accessibility and simplicity of setup and use that it provides.

But man, the cost of VR sure is more than my heart expected even though my brain understands it and comprehends it to be true.

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