As Oculus Rift Launches, What's Next For Virtual Reality?

A steady stream of content will be critical.
Illustration by: Todd Detwiler

The Oculus Rift has arrived.

The hotly anticipated virtual reality headset officially launches on Monday, kicking off a critical period for the fledgling market. Along with the Rift from Oculus — which Facebook bought for $2 billion in 2014 — another widely anticipated VR headset, the Vive from HTC and Valve, follows with an April 5 release.

VR has already had some false starts, but many believe — or hope — that this time it will get traction. Now it's the consumers' turn to vote on whether they will embrace technology that can place them in a live-action or CG 360-degree environment.

CCS Insight projects that shipments of VR and augmented reality (AR) headsets could reach 96 million units by 2020, at a value of $14.5 billion. VR already had a large and enthusiastic fan base, though it also has skeptics who liken it to the attempted rollout of 3D TV. Success will require numerous moving parts to come together, including a quantifiable audience, steady stream of content and a business model that works.

Oculus is currently working as fast as it can to fill pre-orders, which it began accepting in January. The company hasn't revealed current sales figures; if you order Monday morning on the Oculus web site, it projects a July delivery date. The Rift is priced of $599, bundled with Lucky’s Tale. That price doesn't include the required computer or the hand controller, Touch, which is at least several months away.

The Vive lists for $799 with handle controllers but without the required computer. Further out, Sony’s Playstation VR is scheduled to ship in the fall for $399 and requires a PS4. So far, more accessible methods of viewing VR that have made a mark are Samsung VR Gear and Google Cardboard, both of which rely on a mobile phone for its display (the Samsung system requires certain Samsung Galaxy models, while Cardboard can use any brand including an iPhone.)

A steady stream of quality content will be critical, and there's plenty of interest in VR content creation. Oculus has already sold roughly 175,000 Rift developer kits (a new version of the developers kit is now available), and the applications are far reaching. There's already plenty of gaming development, while Hollywood and indie filmmakers are exploring the potential of narrative stories. Meanwhile, uses can be as far-reaching as simulations for medical procedures or space exploration.

At launch, more than 30 games will be available for the Rift, ranging in price from $4.99 to $59.99 (EVE: Valkyrie Founder's Pack). In the mid-range are games such as the $19.99-priced ADR1FT from ThreeOneZero, in which the player must survive a disaster on a destroyed space station (think Gravity). Oculus Video service is also launching, with plans to steadily build a library of movies and TV series (not in 360 degrees) through partnerships (previously announced partners including Fox, Lionsgate and Netflix), as well as original narratives and other such content.

Hollywood is closely watching the potential of the platform not just for distribution of existing content, but for creating new narrative experiences. Twentieth Century Fox has already previewed its The Martian VR Experience, based on its Oscar-nominated film, while Lucasfilm's ILMxLAB recently released a trailer for its Star Wars: Trials of Tatooine. Nether company has announced a release date or price for these experiences.

Key Hollywood filmmakers that are already on board include: Maleficent director Robert Stromberg, who directed The Martian VR Experience and is a partner in The Virtual Reality Company, a VR production company whose board of advisers included Steven Spielberg; and Madagascar director Eric Darnell, whose VR studio Baobab recently raised $6 million in funding.

Looking ahead, today's technology is just the start of fulfilling VR's potential. As with any platform, further development of VR goggles will follow, as well as related work in augmented reality, including Microsoft’s HoloLens and gear from startup Magic Leap.

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