Last week, Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) subsidiary Oculus announced a new stand-alone virtual reality (VR) headset called Oculus Go at its Oculus Connect annual developer conference. The device, which will launch in early 2018, is notable for two important reasons: its price point and its independence from a PC.
Oculus Go will be priced at an aggressively affordable $199, and it does not rely on being tethered to a high-end PC to do all the heavy lifting. Facebook confirmed it was working on a prototype stand-alone VR headset (code-named "Santa Cruz") a year ago, which would be positioned between mobile-based VR (when you strap a smartphone to your face with an accessory) and PC-based VR. Oculus Go is the product of those efforts, although the company also showed off an updated version of its Santa Cruz prototype that will be intended for developers.
Something for everyone
Stand-alone VR headsets like Oculus Go will be an important category in the broader VR market. They won't be as powerful as PC-based VR, but will also cost a fraction of what Rift and a high-end PC cost; an "Oculus Ready PC" combined with Rift and Touch starts at around $1,100. But the performance should be much more compelling than mobile-based VR. Oculus now has a product for each of these distinct categories, providing potential adopters with numerous choices.
Oculus Go is an important step closer to the mainstream. While it may not be compelling enough right now, Oculus Go and stand-alone VR in general will only continue getting better and cheaper over time (like all new technologies). Eventually, the value proposition can strike a balance between price, performance, and functionality that may actually catalyze mainstream adoption. Even if VR never catches on, or takes longer to catch on than Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg would prefer, the company is also hedging by betting big on augmented reality (AR), too.
Just a day before Oculus Go was unveiled, The Independent published an interview with Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) CEO Tim Cook. Given Cook's excitement on the topic, AR naturally came up. Cook doesn't think that the underlying tech to deliver great AR experiences is here yet:
But today I can tell you the technology itself doesn't exist to do that in a quality way. The display technology required, as well as putting enough stuff around your face -- there's huge challenges with that. The field of view, the quality of the display itself, it's not there yet.
While Cook is referring specifically to AR headsets, VR headsets are even harder to get right. The technical requirements are much greater in terms of the processing power necessary to render entire virtual worlds, and both AR and VR still require advanced tracking techniques. The current crop of AR and VR headsets that are either currently available or widely rumored are unlikely to satisfy "the vast majority of people," in Cook's view. Both Apple and Facebook are also reportedly developing AR headsets, and Apple is making its first official step toward VR by supporting VR in the forthcoming iMac Pro.
It seems likely that Apple will follow its standard M.O. with AR headsets: Don't worry about being first as long as it can be the best. Until then, Apple will keep pushing AR through iOS. Meanwhile, Facebook will continue inching closer and closer with incremental iterations.