This year at CES, it’s all about virtual reality. The entire tech industry is convinced it’s the next big thing and the company that kicked off all of this, Oculus, is finally debuting the Oculus Rift for ordering nearly four years after the Kickstarter unexpectedly exploded. VR’s fans are convinced this is the moment the technology becomes more than an industrial tool, but are they right? Or are we just seeing tech history repeating?
We should note that not even Oculus thinks they’ve got the next iPhone here. The company has been surprisingly forthright about the beefy technical specifications your computer will need to meet for the Rift to work properly and about their own sales expectations. While Facebook may have bold plans for the Rift, Oculus itself has made it clear that all they want in the consumer market, for now, is a foothold and a chance to prove that there’s a market beyond the hardcore enthusiast.
That said, CES 2016 is full of headsets following the company’s lead, and VR evangelists are not shy about insisting we’re on the cusp of a world-changing revolution. But it’s hard to see how that could even be the case. The biggest question VR enthusiasts have yet to answer is this: What problem does this solve? The technology has made enormous strides since the days of The Lawnmower Man, and it could be fascinating in the right hands, but it’s not terribly clear why anybody outside of hardcore gamers and tech geeks should even be interested in these headsets.
There are other problems, as well. The Rift’s acclaimed controllers won’t start shipping until later this year, and the Rift itself has no clear ship date yet. No price has been announced, but it’s almost certain higher than the $350 for development kits, something the company is softening by sending free units to its Kickstarter backers. And for some reason, the company isn’t yet emphasizing the rather substantial game library; the unit you’ll order now will ship with two games.
If the question was just, “Can Oculus get a toehold in the consumer market?” the answer would unequivocally be yes. The company has worked absurdly hard to market itself to the mainstream while refusing to promise anything more than the beginning of change. But if the question is whether it can trigger a technological revolution, that answer is a lot more murky.