Virtual Reality Is Still For Enthusiasts Only

Games alone won't make these expensive headsets mainstream.

2016 is the Year of Virtual Reality. No, really, it is. You know it is, because the media - and more importantly, virtual reality companies - say so. Heck, even I've said stuff to that effect. Well, troopers, throw out your calendars, because that year begins today. Oculus has announced a March release for its long-awaited Rift virtual reality headset, with pre-orders open now at a price of US$600.

Six hundred dollars is a lot to ask. It’s $200 more than a PS4 or Xbox One, $250 more than the “ballpark” price suggested by Oculus CEO Palmer Luckey last year, and $590 more than a second-hand Viewmaster I found on eBay just now. Anecdotally, I’ve been told that Valve’s Vive system (i.e. the really really good one) is likely to cost in the vicinity of a thousand dollars. But price is only one of the factors keeping virtual reality squarely in the arena of the enthusiast for now.

Right now, virtual reality is only really viable for two camps of people. One, PC gamers who can afford to drop $600 on a headset, as well as own a computer that can handle it (base specs call for high-level PC specs, and bafflingly four available USB ports). Even Luckey knows it’s a high cumulative price, admitting to Polygon that “the real cost for a normie* is this high-end PC.” The other, the curious early adopter with a Galaxy Gear for their (also expensive) phone, getting sort of half the experience.** Neither is going to get VR to the sort of broad audience Oculus’ parent company Facebook wants to reach.

Every new technology goes through an early-adopter phase. Most start out expensive and eventually work their prices down as the technology improves. Just look at the glut of cheap LCD monitors today, compared with fifteen years ago. The eventual launch of Sony’s PlayStation VR will do a lot to broaden VR’s appeal - it’s guaranteed to work with the 35 million PS4s sold so far, it’s likely to be cheaper than the competition, and its second-screen tech makes it more living room-friendly than the comparatively hermitic Rift.

But even once prices come down, there’s a more pressing issue, which is one of software. There isn’t a “killer app” for VR yet. Sure, the technology is legitimately amazing, and lots of the (mostly indie) games out there look interesting and innovative, but no game stands out as a must-own.*** More pertinently, non-game apps haven’t really emerged. Despite VR starting out in the games industry, it won’t be games that push VR into the mainstream. The most potent VR experiences I’ve had so far have actually been filmed documentaries, and I can’t help feeling that experiential and communication apps will change the playing field considerably - especially if they're made by prominent names outside gaming. But those apps are just not here yet. VR needs to be considered more than just a gaming peripheral to make its mark on broader culture.

Until then, it’s a curious toy that your friend or coworker bought and won’t shut up about.

* Actual terminology used by someone trying to sell a product

** Or a Google Cardboard headset, getting even less than half the experience, but for like $20.

*** Oculus is banking heavily on EVE: Valkyrie, but a space combat sim based on a notoriously arcane online universe doesn’t scream “mainstream hit” to me. Likewise, Lucky's Tale, the platformer also included with pre-orders, is a fun game, but hardly a breakout must-have.